The Artist's Muse: Absinthe
Absinthe in Art During La Belle Époque
Absinthe is an extraordinarily strong alcoholic drink that is bright green in colour and is rumoured for being the drink that made Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear. Absinthe is famous for being the fashionable drink during La Belle Époque, the "beautiful age" in France from the 1890s up to the advent of the First World War.
Absinthe's popularity coincided with the rise of the use of the lithographic posterfor advertising. As a result many iconic Art Nouveau posters feature this infamous and notorious drink are extremely collectable today. Absinthe was also the muse for artists such as Picasso, Manet, Van Gogh and Degas who produced art that was groundbreaking at the time.
Today this art has made a popular return with fantastic reproductions available for anyone to buy and enjoy, allowing us a glimpse through a window of a forgotten era.
I have tried Absinthe just the once, and I wanted to like it, I really did. But I found it to be HORRIBLE! I think this is because I had it neat. Perhaps if I had tried it prepared the correct way, it may have been delicious? However, I love the art that the "King of Spirits" has inspired and this page looks at my choice of vintage art posters and paintings featuring the Green Fairy.
La Belle Epoque and Absinthe
The drink of choice for bohemians!
La Belle Epoque conjures up visions of poets writing in tiny attics, painters starving for their art, the Moulin Rouge dancers. A hedonistic bohemian whirlwind of an era of excess in one of the most beautiful and elegant cities in the world - Paris.
In France absinthe became more popular than wine during La Belle Epoque. Due to a fall in price it became accessible for everyone from the bohemian to the upper classes. La Fee Verte, or green fairy, was said to stimulate creativity and therefore became the drink of choice for artists, poets and writers.
The thing to do was to have a glass in the morning and then again another in the evening at a bar during "l'heure verte" (green hour) at the end of the day - like a happy hour for Absinthe!
To give you an idea on how popular the drink was, in 1910 36 million litres of absinthe was consumed by the French people. Due to the various reported side effects of psychosis or "absinthism" as it was known, absinthe was banned by various European countries in the early 1900s, with France banning the drink by 1915.
Absinthe in Advertising
The lithographic posters shown below are brightly coloured and full of movement, giving the impression that drinking absinthe brings great fun and glamour.
Absinthe Berthelot by Henri Thiriet (1866 - 1897)
Little is known about the life of Henri Thiriet, except that he was a French illustrator and created Art Nouveau posters full of movement and life - this one being no exception. I love the cheekiness and fun of this poster, there is lots going on and plenty to look at - it suggests that absinthe makes a great party! Look closely at the picture, everyone has red hair!
Henri Privat-Livemont (1861-1936)
An Art Nouveau artist from Belgium, Privat-Livemont is best known for his wonderfully dreamy looking posters, using soft shades and colours.
This poster was created in 1896 and is the original is one of the most sought after and collectible Art Nouveau posters from that time. I have tried to research exactly how much an original of this poster would be - no luck yet but will update when I find out!
Leonetto Capiello (1875 - 1942)
Capiello was an Italian artist who moved to Italy in 1898. The woman featured in this poster is similar or seems to be the same woman that is featured in most of his other illustrations - she is strong, jolly and full of laughter! He liked to draw women in red dresses, with red hair with plenty of movement and bold lines.
Capiello is considered to be the Godfather of the Art Deco movement and produced over 1000 posters in 40 years, revolutionizing poster art with his fresh style.
Absinthe Superieure by Victor Leydet (1861-1904)
This poster gives the impression that not only is absinthe a superior drink, but it will turn you into a "superior" drinker - the man illustrated here is muscle bound, full of health and vitality.
This is an interesting depiction of an absinthe drinker when you compare it with the defeated and sick looking drinkers painted by the impressionist and realist painters that you can see below.
The Influence of Absinthe in Art
In contrast to the advertising posters of the time, artists depicted absinthe in a very different way. Instead of having fun, characters are portrayed as degenerate and in the depths of poverty. Absinthe is shown as having a strong and detrimental grip on it's drinkers.
L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917)
Degas was an Impressionist painter who is famous for his beautiful paintings of ballet dancers. This is a very different subject; painted in 1876 it was vilified by critics at the time who believed it to be "disgusting and ugly". It was shown again in England in 1893 and again the straight laced Victorians found it to be undignified, immoral and corrupt. Victorians couldn't believe a woman could sit in a bar and drink, this painting caused a huge amount of anti-French feeling at the time in England and was actually booed at in the Christies auction room!
The two figures in the painting are well known characters in Paris at the time, an actress and a painter. I find to be a very sad picture, the woman in particular seems a very lonely and defeated - all she has is the absinthe.
The Absinthe Drinker by Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
This is one of Manet's first major works and one of the first paintings to show absinthe in art.
This 1858 painting depicts a drunk solitary man standing in the shadows in an alley in Paris. Although he has the top hat of a member of the Upper Classes, this man's unshaven face and the old shawl around his shoulders show a man who is on the edges of society and broken down by absinthe alcoholism.
This man was actually a real person, a man called Collardet who was an alcoholic and who hung around the Louvre.
The Absinthe Drinkers by Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850 - 1824)
The painting shows two men in very much the same state as Manet's alley-way gentleman. The contrast of their black suits with subdued yellowy colours of their surroundings depicts two men who are in the grips of absinthe addiction. The advert for wine above them is ironic, as is the dead grapevine above their heads; neither of these men have any interest in drinking wine.
Still Life with Absinthe by Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890)
Van Gogh is the most famous absinthe drinker of them all! In the winter of 1888, Van Gogh cut off his ear with a razor after fighting with his friend Paul Gauguin (another absinthe artist!) and reportedly then handed it to a prostitute in a local brothel.
This act has created many conspiracy theories over the years; no one knows why he actually did it. One of the prevailing rumours is that an absinthe binge caused him to cut off his ear in a rage.
Throughout his life Van Gogh was plagued with demons - again there is much debate as to what was this was, it could have been bi-polar condition, or schizophrenia or epilepsy. Van Gogh is also rumoured to have been addicted to the turpentine he used to thin his paint. The latest theory is that Gauguin actually cut Van Gogh's ear with a sword. Read more about Van Gogh's amazing yet ultimately tragic life at the Van Gogh Gallery.
La Muse Verte by Albert Maignan (1845 - 1908)
Painted in 1895, this painting shows a poet whose muse is the "green fairy", the nickname given to absinthe. But this muse, although she looks beautiful and pure, is actually poison - see the face of the poet, he is clawing at his face with one hand and the other seems to be trying to push her away.
Anti Absinthe Posters - The dark side to the King of Spirits
The fears of absinthe causing madness and psychotic behaviour led to a mass prohibition movement throughout Europe in the early 1900s. Absinthe became the reason behind various murders, particularly one sad and brutal case where a man named Lanfray shot his entire family.
The anti absinthe movement snowballed, with Switzerland banning the drink in 1910, the USA in 1912 and France in 1915. Other European countries also banned absinthe in the early 1900s, but some countries didn't - such as Spain and the UK.
The posters above, to the right and below reflect the growing concern about absinthe at the time.
What Makes Absinthe the King of Spirits
Absinthe was created in 1789 by a Swiss doctor called Dr. Pierre Ordinaire who used it to cure the sick; the recipe was eventually sold in 1805 to the Pernod Fils absinthe company who started producing it in a factory.
Absinth is 45-74% ABV and a mixture of herbs and wormwood, it has an anise flavour and is NOT meant to be drunk neat - sugar and water is added. Absinthe is made in pretty much the same way as gin, and the bright green colour comes from the chlorophyll of the herbs during the distilling process.
Absinthe has gained cult status due to the strange side effects, such as hallucinations and psychotic tendencies. These side effects were originally explained as being an effect of a chemical in the herb wormwood, called Thujone. This has now been disproved, thujone can produce muscle spasms but not hallucinations, and it is now believed that the side effects that people experienced in the early 1900s were due to the extra chemicals added to the drink to enhance the green colour. "absinthism" was the name for anyone suffering from the strange effects of the drink.
Absinthe is meant to be mixed 5 parts water to one part of the spirit. You pour absinthe into a glass, the sugar cube is placed on special slotted spoon and held over the absinthe, ice cold water is then poured over the spoon - thus diluting and sweetening the absinthe.
If you want to find out more about absinthe, its effects and how it is made in more depth, I recommend this article.
“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
Learn More About Absinthe and Art
The posters featured here are all available at Art.com and Allposters.com as quality reproduction prints, if you want to buy the real thing or buy other absinthe antiques, check out these links. I have also included websites that can give you more information on the history of the drink as well as the modern absinthes available today
- Absinthe - The Mysterious 'Green Fairy'
Absinthe is as a unique spirit with a history of controversy.
- Absinthe at the Virtual Absinthe Museum
A comprehensive guide to the world of absinthe, with a detailed history, FAQ and an online museum showcasing the largest collection of vintage absinthe art and artifacts in existence.
- Famous Absinthe Drinkers - Absinthe101.com
A list of the most famous absinthe drinkers throughout time.
- Absinthe Originals - Absinthe Spoons, Glasses, Fountains, Absinthe Antiques & Art
The premier source for authentic absinthe antiques of the Belle Epoque era.
- IVPDA - Home
The International Vintage Poster Dealers Association (IVPDA), a non-profit association, was founded in 1996 by a group of highly respected poster dealers from North America and Europe.