Like nearly all other impressionist works, L'Absinthe wouldn't stand a chance at being displayed at Le Salon, France's annual, official art show of that time. Its jury was exclusively interested in promoting traditional art. The show was a very important event because it was the place to gain public recognition and as a result have works commissioned by the French government.
The impressionists didn't like traditional art, or at least they felt the urge to create different works. At the same time they required an interested audience to appreciate their works so they could make a living. Instead of going back to traditional art, they organized their own exhibitions. In 1874 a group of artists, among them Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas, held their first independent exhibition. Even though it was not a big success, some of the visitors were interested in seeing more and even buying some works.
Eight exhibitions were organized between 1874 and 1886 and Degas participated in all but one of them even though he was unhappy with the name impressionist. Instead he called himself a realist, referring to his works being based on his own experiences and observations instead of the traditional mythological and religious scenes that were usually the subject of art. This was true for all members of the impressionist movement though, so this might have been nothing more than a semantic discussion about whether the word "impressionism" conveys the meaning of the artists' intentions accurately.
But it was more than that. The impressionists were typically painting outside so they could maximize the influence of the sunlight to capture an occasional scene in relation to the time of day and the current atmosphere. An example of this is Monet's Impression: soleil levant (1873), the work responsible for the term impressionism being coined by one of the critics visiting the first exhibition. Degas used the same basic techniques to paint, but his goal was not to capture the atmosphere or some other highly subjective aspects of a scene. Instead he used the quick painting technique to render complex perspectives, such as in L'Etoile (1876-77).
Degas was a typical impressionist in continuing Delacroix' concept of colors being a vital and equal part of painting just as proportion and perspective. The impressionists take this even further by making color perhaps the most important part of their works. They didn't just use color to finish their original painting, they make it a dominant part by using primarily colored patches to create shapes. This is the most characteristic feature of impressionism and its most distinguishing feature.
This brings us to Degas' L'Absinthe (1876). Over the years there's been quite some confusion surrounding this painting, the reason (and explanation) for this lies in the difference between Degas and other impressionists described earlier. First of all, it's not a particularly happy scene without much color. The persons depicted, actress Ellen Andree and engraver Marcellin Desboutin, are friends of Degas. Why would Degas use his friends to create such a sad and awkward scene? Was he trying to say something about the dangers of Absinthe, a drink usually containing 70+ percent alcohol? If so, then why is the man in the picture drinking black coffee instead of Absinthe as well?
Degas was interested in painting a scene the way he had seen and experienced it, not making it either pretty or ugly. The other impressionists were known to put their personal feelings toward a scene they painted clearly into their work (for example, Jeune filles au piano (1892) by Renoir in which everything looks radiant) and since Degas was referred to as a member of this group, critics naturally sought an explanation for this depiction of two persons sitting soberly at a table. During an exhibition in London in 1893, the subjects were considered degraded and the picture as a whole as shocking. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it does explain and confirm that Degas was not strictly an impressionist but more of a combination between impressionist and realist.
Degas and the Dance, Kendall & De Vonyar, ISBN: 0810932822, Amazon.
Art History, Stokstad, ISBN: 0130123196, Amazon.
History of Art, Janson & Janson, ISBN: 0131833316, Amazon.
Ibiblio Degas Webmuseum for the L'Absinthe picture.