by Steve Gottschling

When a man’s tastes tend toward the idiosyncratic, when he sports a French tuck at the bar where everyone else’s hems hide entirely behind their waistbands, we would like to think those tastes are protected. That he has knitted his various coping mechanisms into an invisible shield that sends all but the kindest words ricocheting across the floor.

But more often, this shield isn’t invisible. It’s nonexistent, and his ability to survive his critics has everything to do with the number of stones flying in his general direction.  

In the late spring of 1876, military tailor Henry Hill purchased Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe, then called simply Au Cafe, from the Deschamps gallery in London and brought it back to his collection in Brighton. This purchase in 2018 would have been like an executive strolling into his accounting firm on a Friday wearing his new pressed-collar rayon shirt.

Sure, Paris’s Impressionist movement faced in England its share of detractors, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti who called their work “simply putrescence and decomposition.” But much like the colleague who fixates on that rayon shirt while stammering something like “well it’s certainly eye catching,” the country’s broader mood seemed to be a sort of uneasy praise.

Hill expected as much when he titled the work A Sketch in a Cafe for an exhibition in Brighton, anticipating sideways glances at the work’s rough appearance. The glances came as scheduled. The Pall Mall Gazette wrote:

And yet in such material, graceless and unattractive as it is, Mr. Degas finds occasion for the exercise of the most delicate art. He takes these tawdry colors and submits them to a series of the most interesting experiments in tone.

And the Brighton Gazette:

The perfection of ugliness; undoubtedly a clever painting, though treated in a slap-dash manner, amounting to affectation....The very disgusting novelty of the subject arrests attention. What there is to admire in it is the skill of the artist, not the subject itself.

Hill never exhibited Au Cafe in England again. The painting returned to Paris for one more exhibition and then disappeared back into Hill’s collection until his death.

If Hill faced an atmosphere of uneasy enthusiasm, the painting’s next two owners stared down a whirlwind of hostility. By the time Hill died, England saw a rise in upper middle class art collectors who preferred paintings with pleasant, morally righteous narratives. When Christie’s auctioned Au Cafe in 1892, the audience hissed.

Two men, however, did not. Collector Arthur Kay recounts in his memoir A Treasure Trove in Art the moment he stood at the back of the room and watched as fellow collector Alexandre Reid bid on the painting:

I felt it would be wiser to let him become buyer, and offer him a profit afterwards, rather than run him up in the auction. This policy worked; he bought the picture. When I met him he told how some of his friends were chaffing[sic] and abusing him for having acquired such a thing. He evidently thought that he had made a mistake. I offered to relieve him of his mistake for a very moderate consideration, which pleased and satisfied him.

But Kay found scarcely better reactions among his own peers. “At last,” he wrote, “after frequent requests to sell, and wearied by the questionings of those who were incapable of understanding it, I exchanged it in part payment for another picture.”

Two days later, in a move way too many consignment shop clients would find relatable, Kay returned to the dealer to buy it again.

Kay’s real test of devotion began in February 1893, when he exhibited Au Cafe at the Grafton Gallery. The painting appeared under the new name L’Absinthe, almost destined to make critics convulse by drawing attention to the green liquid enjoyed by one of its subjects.

The news cycle lasted months. Arts journalists in various English papers staked their careers on L’Absinthe. D.S. MacColl of the Spectator and Elizabeth Robins Pennell praised Degas’ technique, while the Westminster Gazette’s J.A. Spender denied it had any artistic merit at all. Artists William Blake Richmond and Walter Crane wrote letters to the Gazette supporting Spender.

Kay was exasperated. In a letter to the Gazette, he wrote:

You have asked me to answer a question. How could one live with such a work as Degas’s “L’Absinthe”? For so the picture has been named, but not by me. Mr. Crane says cohabitation is the test which never fails. Perhaps he forgets that it depends on who lives with a picture, and that true connoisseurs should be without prejudice…. I have lived with “L’Absinthe” for many months. It was hung in a position which enables me to pass and see it constantly; everyday I grew to like it better.

But was all too much. Kay sold the painting in April 1893 to a Parisian dealer, this time for good.

As for the owner of the rayon shirt, some say they can hear him clacking away at his keyboard, writing his own screed for the next time someone dares accuse him of working for Magnum PI.