This month we’re partnering with Europeana again to celebrate their fantastic new Art Nouveau season (21 February – 29 May). The season explores the depth and diversity of the influential art movement and features beautiful Art Nouveau jewellery, posters and much more. It is led by a major new exhibition that tells the story of Art Nouveau from its origins to its brilliant heyday, and features fifty artworks from more than twenty museums.
Since becoming popular in late 19th century France, in the era of Art Nouveau, absinthe has always had a certain mystique. Derived mostly from the leaves of Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), absinthe became known as la fée verte (“the green fairy”), due to its frequent green colouration.
From the outset, the fiery spirit divided opinion: it was loved by bohemians like Baudelaire, Picasso and Joyce, but loathed by temperance campaigners who feared its corrupting influence and wanted to ban it from public sale.
Édouard Manet’s Le Buveur d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker) is a moody evocation of urban low-life. Manet based the portrait on an alcoholic vagrant he knew called Collardet, who hung around the Louvre area of Paris. Manet’s picture has a brutal frankness and an air of solitary desperation.
Unsurprisingly, advertisements for absinthe presented a rather different image. Poster artists like Henri Privat-Livemont and Leonetto Cappiello promoted a joyous and sociable vision of absinthe consumption. In keeping with the times, they used classic elements of Art Nouveau style – flowing organic forms, areas of plain colour and elegant typography – to create striking and effective advertisements.
Cappiello’s advertisement for Absinthe Ducros fils features a flame-haired young woman in carefree abandon, holding aloft a large bottle of absinthe. It’s a sharp contrast from the mood of Manet’s lonely alcoholic.
In Privat-Livemont’s 1896 poster for Absinthe Robette, absinthe is depicted as a health-giving elixir, brandished by a beautiful, barely clad woman who resembles a figure from mythology.
To maximise sales, distillers were keen to promote absinthe as a sociable drink that men and women could enjoy together. Absinthe was enjoyed by all social classes from the working-class to the wealthy bourgeoisie.
Absinthe became so popular in bars, bistros and cafés that, by the 1860s, the hour between 5-6pm was called l’heure verte (“the green hour”). By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million litres of absinthe per year. However, absinthe was increasingly tainted by assertions that it was addictive, hallucinogenic and responsible for criminal disorder. By 1915, absinthe had been banned in most of Europe and in the United States.
In recent years, absinthe has seen a worldwide revival in popularity, with a growth in artisanal production and a variety of new formulations. In 2011, the French government finally repealed its 1915 absinthe ban.