Monday, March 01, 2021

Absinthe Drinkers in Art: “The Green Fairy”

The Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).
Hermitage Museum Russia (Wikipedia)

From Manet's
Absinthe Drinker
Known as “the green fairy,” absinthe was served in cafes in the Bohemian parts of Paris and many other cities, and consumed by all the artistic types who flocked there. Paintings of absinthe drinkers by numerous famous artists in the late 19th and early 20th century are fascinating. Quite a few of these artists were themselves fond of drinking the distinctive green beverage, which tasted of anise and a number of other herbs, especially wormwood -- and had a very high alcohol content.

Absinthe was invented in the 18th century as a medicinal beverage, and grew in popularity until its high point in the pre-World War I era. It was loved by both the successful people and the failures. 
Café Table with Absinthe, 1887, Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

In Van Gogh's painting you can see the color of the drink. And maybe how delicious and cool it looked! Van Gogh was a dedicated absinthe drinker, like many artists including his friend Toulouse Lautrec, who sketched Van Gogh and many others in Paris cafés. I wrote more about Van Gogh and his choices of food and drink here.

Monsieur Boileau au Café, 1893.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

The Absinthe Drinkers 1881, by Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924).

Raffaëli was a French realist painter who associated with the Impressionists.  This work is a recent acquisition by the DeYong Museum in San Francisco (link).

Absinthe drinkers, 1908, Jean Béraud (French, 1849-1936)

Léon Spilliaert, The Absinthe Drinker, 1907.

Léon Spilliaert was a Belgian symbolist painter (1881-1946). He “was a fan of the fabled absinthe drinker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But if ever an artwork could put you off the green fairy, this is it.” (The Guardian, “Léon Spilliaert’s The Absinthe Drinker: an eldritch cautionary tale”)
The Absinthe Drinkers, 1890, Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944)

The oldest bar in New Orleans, founded in the early 19th century, is called "The Old Absinthe House."

Absinthe also had a role in literature. A famous essay on absinthe was written in 1918 in New Orleans by Aleister Crowley: "Absinthe: The Green Goddess." It begins:
"Keep always this dim corner for me, that I may sit while the Green Hour glides, a proud pavane of Time. For I am no longer in the city accursed, where Time is horsed on the white gelding Death, his spurs rusted with blood.
"There is a corner of the United States which he has overlooked. It lies in New Orleans, between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue; the Mississippi for its base. ...
"Here, too are marble basins hollowed – and hallowed! – by the drippings of the water which creates by baptism the new spirit of absinthe.
"I am only sipping the second glass of that 'fascinating, but subtle poison, whose ravages eat men’s heart and brain' that I have ever tasted in my life; and as I am not an American anxious for quick action, I am not surprised and disappointed that I do not drop dead upon the spot. But I can taste souls without the aid of absinthe; and besides, this is magic of absinthe! The spirit of the house has entered into it; it is an elixir, the masterpiece of an old alchemist, no common wine." 


L'Absinthe, 1876. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Perhaps the most famous absinthe art work.

As its popularity grew, absinthe was considered both highly addictive and highly dangerous, believed to cause hallucinations, madness, and even murder. It was banned in Europe from around 1910-2005, and in the United States from 1912-2007. Regulation of legal absinthe now limits the amount of thujone, the psychoactive substance that comes from wormwood.

The irresistible appeal and danger of absinthe is depicted in many works of art, of which I've shown just a few. I'm always interested in how specific foods and drinks have been depicted in the arts. This post will be shared with Elizabeth at Altered Book Lover and other bloggers who love to write about drinks. © 2021 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.


Laurie said...

Wow, imagine that, I never knew this. I know it’s a favoured drink by many in older movies but I had no idea it had this rich volatile history! Thank you for sharing this!

My name is Erika. said...

This was a fascinating post Mae. I've always wanted just a taste of it, because I think it would be way too powerful for me. But you read about it so often, and I'm curious. The Spilliaert painting says a lot though. What a face. Those eyes are almost scary. Happy March! And I am guessing you will share this for T also so happy early T day.

Divers and Sundry said...

I remember when absinthe became legal here again and looked into why it was banned and why the ban was revoked. The old artists wouldn't recognize it now, would they lol

Pam said...

Maybe Absinthe is no more of a hallucinogenic than tequila, bourbon and vodka if you have enough. 😉 I've been to the bar in New Orleans, historical for sure with its connection to Jean Lafitte. Van Gogh's art work always fascinates me, his interpretation and choice of colors, I can see why he liked it, maybe it contributed to the fiasco with his ear. I bought Van Gogh's Table after seeing your post on it back then. Great intriguing book about him, the food and all.

Harvee said...

I love the Impressionists! and wonder if the absinthe had much to do with their

Anne in the kitchen said...

I have never tried it before, but now I am curious. Since it has changed from its original form it might just be a pretty green drink.

Lowcarb team member said...

Fascinating post, thank you.

Happy March Wishes.

All the best Jan

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I really enjoyed reading about absinthe. I knew it was illegal in the states and how dangerous it was considered. As a fan of murder mysteries, I have seen several shows in which either absinthe or wormwood were used as the murder weapon. It was great to see it in a very different light, though. Thanks for sharing these wonderful paintings and your always unique way of looking at food and drink with us for T this almost Tuesday, dear Mae.

Debra Eliotseats said...

I'm only familiar with Degas' so I appreciate the art history lesson here, Mae.

Linda Kunsman said...

A great post- fab choice of paintings and a wonderful history of absinthe. Happy T Day!

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

We have a bottle of Absinthe which came with the traditional sugar plinth, if that's the correct term? Mark, our youngest, wanted to try the full experience.

Iris Flavia said...

A medicinal beverage?! Oh, hello!
I once tasted it, weeee, from hell, kinda, LOL.
Interesting it played such a huge role!

J said...

Mea that's so interesting to read, I once had a tiniest sip, so revolting, not sure how anyone could drink it at all.
Happy T Day
Jan S

Lisca said...

Fascinating post. My favorite summer drink is Pastis, which is similar, but slightly sweeter and without the wormwood.
I think the French wine producers started a campaign to discredit Absinthe. People were drinking it with their meals and wine was in decline. Any alcoholic drink will intoxicate you if you drink a lot of it, be it gin or whiskey or absinthe. But hey, I have my Pastis and I love it.
Happy T-Day,

Valerie-Jael said...

A wonderful collection of art, but I think I'll stick to coffee! Happy T Day, Valerie

DVArtist said...

Wow Mae this is an extraordinary post with truly fine art. A wonderful history lesson. Thanks and have a great day today.

Jeanie said...

You're right about the Spilliert (I think I just slaughtered that name) -- it would turn me off anything! For some reason I'm thinking Oldest Kid mentioned there is now absinthe here that is a legal drink? I wish I remembered more. New to me. I'll stick to my red wine!

Let's Art Journal said...

Loved seeing all the different art related to absinthe, its effects look quite haunting in some of the portraits. I've seen this drink being sold in Prague but I've never wanted to try it, for obvious reasons 😉. Take care and Happy T Day! Hugs, Jo x

Christine Kiehl said...

Wonderful post full of fantastic details and photos! Thank you!

Kate Yetter said...

Very interesting. While the drink itself does not sound like something I would drink, I love the paintings that you referenced. Especially, the Monsieur Boileau au Café painting. Beautiful!
Happy Tea Day,

CJ Kennedy said...

Fascinating and so cool to see artwork where the drink was depicted. Happy T Day

pearshapedcrafting said...

Loved reading this Mae! I remember seeing Degas painting a few years ago and the sad feeling it gave me! Absinthe doesn't sound as though it's for me!!! Happy T Day! Hugs, Chrisx

Kitchen Riffs said...

Absinthe is good stuff! It was hard to buy in the US (impossible, really) for most of the 20th century -- wormwood worries. Although there were good substitutes available. You can buy the real stuff again (I'm vague on the details, but somehow the dangerous side effects no longer are a concern). Absinthe is often served in a 5:1 ratio -- 5 parts waters to 1 part absinthe. I don't know if the story is true, but I once read that Van Gogh sometimes liked to mix 1 part black ink with his absinthe -- the story goes he liked the way it made his teeth look! Hard to believe. Anyway, such a fun post. Outstanding choices of art. Thanks.