Dine & Wine

The Drunk Art History: Absinthe

Magda Michalska 28 October 2016 min Read

Have you ever wondered why there are so many paintings of people drinking absinthe in the history of art? Well, I have. I realized it must have been a favourite drink of the Parisian boheme in the belle epoque. And probabaly not only then. So what was so attractive about it?

DISCLAIMER: Before I start I want to make it clear: I’m not promoting drinking. If you are NOT a 19th century prodigy of brush or pen, drink in moderation.

Its colour?

Albert Maignan, Green Muse, 1895, Musée de Picardie, Amiens.
Albert Maignan, Green Muse, 1895, Musée de Picardie, Amiens.

In France absinthe became called “La Fée Verte”, meaning “The Green Fairy” and this is how it is presented here: as a femme fatale, a fairy who drives a man into a hypnotic state. I imagine that during the happy hours in bars, which came to be called “L’Heure Verte”, meaning “The Green Hour”, there were many such men…

Its magic?

Edgar Degas, In a cafe (Absinthe), 1876, Musee d'Orsay
Edgar Degas, In a cafe (Absinthe), 1876, Musee d’Orsay

Especially that absinthe had this reputation of an addictive, mind-altering drink which could transport men into mysterious psychological states. Although this psychoactive effect is contested nowadays, in the 19th century it was the drink of writers, painters and the intellectual crème de la crème of Paris who believed in its magical quality.

Its taste?

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Hangover: The Drinker (Suzanne Valadon), 1887
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Hangover: The Drinker (Suzanne Valadon), 1887, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge

Most of the avant-guarde artists drank absinthe. Among them there were Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Surrealists, Cubists… They spent many evenings in bars and cafes drinking absinthe and discussing art, politics and literature. They also had their own recipes for cocktails. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was famous for a drink called “The Earthquake”. Imagine the hangover.

Its addictive power?

Vincent van Gogh, Still life with absinthe, 1887, Van Gogh Museum
Vincent van Gogh, Still life with absinthe, 1887, Van Gogh Museum

Many drank in large quantities. There are theories that van Gogh cut his ear after having drunk too much. His use of yellow can also be attributed to his absinthe-absent-mindedness. Same applies to Gauguin. Do we owe his bright colours to absinthe, too???!!!!

Its immoral nature?

Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

For many absinthe meant moral degradation. This is why the first major work of Manet was rejected from the Salon of 1859. Only Delacroix voted in its favour while Manet’s master Thomas Cotour summed it up: “An absinthe drinker! And they paint abominations like that! My poor friend, you are the absinthe drinker. It is you who have lost your moral sense.”

Its coolness?

Pablo Picasso, Absinthe drinker, 1901-2, Hermitage Museum
Pablo Picasso, Absinthe drinker, 1901-2, Hermitage Museum

Or maybe it’s just about being cool? Maybe they just wanted to feel they belonged with someone and the drink let them make friendships more easily? Or maybe they felt so lonely and desperate that they wanted to sink their solitude in alcohol? Who knows, probably all the reasons put together.

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