The painting, created c.1859, came about during an era where the subjects of full-figure paintings were generally members of the aristocracy or royalty. However, Manet aspired to create something profoundly different, which would lead to a major shake up in the art world of nineteenth-century France.
Born in Paris in January 1832, Edouard Manet's mother was the daughter of a diplomat and his father was a judge. His affluent and politically connected parents expected their son to grow up to pursue a career in law.
His uncle, Edmond Fournier, would save him from this fate by taking his nephew to the Louvre and encouraging him to follow his own aspirations as a painter. After failing twice to join the Navy, Edouard's father finally gave in to his son's wishes to become a painter.
Edouard Manet travelled around Europe for a few years, falling under the influence of artists such as Diego Velázquez of Spain and the Dutch painter Frans Hals. Shortly after making his return to France, Manet opened his own studio in 1856 where he busied himself painting realistic subjects such as Gypsies, beggars, and people hanging around in cafés. Unfortunately, very little of these early works have survived, possibly having been destroyed by Manet himself.
A few years later, Manet painted his first major work, The Absinthe Drinker. The subject of the painting was an alcoholic chiffonnier, or rag picker, by the name of Collardet who was known to hang around the vicinity of the Louvre museum, collecting scraps and drinking. Collardet leans against a ledge, dressed like a dandy in his black hat and brown cloak, reminiscent of so many portraits of aristocrats and royal figures. At his feet lay the discarded bottle of absinthe, a single half-filled glass of the green liquor waiting beside him.
When Monet completed the painting and presented it to his former painting instructor, Thomas Couture, his teacher said to him that he had lost his moral sense. Undeterred, Manet submitted the painting to the Paris Salon in 1859. The painting was rejected by all judges, with the exception of the Romance artist Eugène Delacroix.
The members of the selection committee at the Salon were offended by the painting, and refused to hang it because to them, drunkards were pitiful, downtrodden reprobates of the gutter. Yet here, in The Absinthe Drinker, was the realistic portrait of a proud and vital human being; a swaggering drunkard just as deserving of being the subject of a painting as any aristocrat or member of a royal family.
The criticism of The Absinthe Drinker didn't stop with the Paris Salon, however. After his spectacular rejection, Manet said to his friend, the poet Baudelaire, 'Insults are pouring down on me as thick as hail'. What makes this intense criticism so interesting is that during this time in Paris, the consumption of Absinthe was quite common, so the sight of such an elegant low-life would not have been such an extraordinary sight. Like all important art, holding a lens up to something very real and presenting it as a work of art can be frightening to the establishment.
Fortunately, this piece was an indication of things to come from Edouard Manet. In the years after painting The Absinthe Drinker, his paintings would continue to be the subject of controversy. In 1863, 'The Luncheon on the Grass', or 'Le déjeuner sur l'herbe' was also rejected by the Paris Salon due to strong objections to the nudity in the piece. Two years later, he caused another scandal at the Salon with his painting titled 'Olympia', which portrayed a nude prostitute and her black servant.
In spite of being so radically different from the artists of the day, the works of Edouard Manet have continued to be influential and he remains one of the most highly regarded French painters in history.