THE ABSINTHE DRINKERS – New Home for French Masterwork

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Coincidentally timed with the special exhibition Birth of Impressionism at the de Young Museum, John E. Buchanan, Jr., the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, announces the acquisition of The Absinthe Drinkers (Les buveurs d’absinthe), 1881, by the French painter Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924). Widely regarded as one of the artist’s most important and accomplished paintings, The Absinthe Drinkers will temporarily grace the entrance of the Birth of Impressionism exhibition this summer before settling into its permanent home in gallery 19 at the Legion of Honor.

This painting joins a distinguished group of Raffaëlli’s works on paper already in the Fine Arts Museums’ collection and will greatly enhance the Legion’s presentation of 19th-century French paintings.  Says Buchanan of the painting, “The Absinthe Drinkers had a remarkable debut in 1881 and it continued to captivate viewers at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Art institute of Chicago in 1895, and the National Gallery in 1986.  I am thrilled that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco was able to seize the rare opportunity to own and present the painting to our visitors. This acquisition underscores the importance of collecting the best of kind.”

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Jean-François Raffaëlli
The Absinthe Drinkers (Les buveurs d’absinthe), 1881
Oil on canvas, 42 ½ x 42 ½ inches

The Absinthe Drinkers caused a sensation when exhibited in the sixth Impressionist group show in 1881.  Hoping to heighten the appeal and visitorship of the Impressionist exhibitions, Degas wanted to increase the number of figural paintings included.  Thus he invited the Realist painter Raffaëlli to participate.  Not stylistically an Impressionist, Raffaëlli nonetheless employs the characteristic elements of what was then called the “New Painting.”  His paintings focus on contemporary subject matter, particularly depicting ordinary people caught in routine activities of urban life.  Formal devices, such as unexpected special perspectives and unusual croppings, coupled with an attention to the two-dimensional surface effects created by paint on canvas are typically avant-garde elements shared by Raffaëlli, Degas and others.

There is more Raffaëlli to be seen in San Francisco this summer.  An earlier masterwork, The Family of Jean-le-Boîteux, Peasants from Plougasnou, 1876, can be seen in the exhibition Birth of Impressionism at the de Young through September 6th.  Four additional works by Raffaëlli are on view in the exhibition Impressionist Paris: City of Light June 5th through September 26th.

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They are:

• La Scala and Spectators, 1886, color gillotages

• Street Scene with Two Figures and a Dog, ca. 1890, oil on canvas

• Self Portrait, 1893, color drypoint

• Fashionable Young Woman on the Boulevard des Italiens, Paris, ca. 1899, oil on canvas

Taken as a whole, this extraordinary group of paintings and prints, along with the iconic The Absinthe Drinkers, reflects a profound shift in mood from melancholy to tranquility in Raffaëlli’s later career.  Looking back from the turn of the 20th century, the artist recognized this change in the tenor of his work as autobiographical in nature, explaining that it echoed the improvement in his personal fortunes.  “My artistic successes have been such that my bitterness has fled,” he noted, adding “my earlier admirers probably say still that they like better the Raffaëlli of the first period, while others admire more my new dreams.”

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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