I’ve not been feeling very creative lately, but I finally got some inspiration from a short documentary I found entitled Absinthe, from 2010, directed by Chris Buddy. I’m about halfway through with it, but it was a very interesting story. Absinthe was started in the late 1790s by a peasant woman in SW Switzerland who created an herbal elixir, which became a popular regional drink and still is to this day. Authentic Absinthe has grande wormwood in it, the ingredient which eventually got it banned in many countries for containing thujone, which people thought caused madness (it didn’t). It was used by the French military during their campaigns in Algeria in the early 1840s and given out with water to prevent dysentery and malaria. After these soldiers came back from the war, they wanted the drink at home and that’s how the drink became popular in French cafes.
In order to drink absinthe, you would pour a glass like you see in the pic above, put a slotted spoon on top of it with a sugar cube and pour water over it, melting the sugar. When you do this, you get an opalescent greenish-yellow color, that everyone associates with Absinthe. Pernod is one of the oldest and still operating brands of the alcohol. The way you add water to it remind me of ouzo, the ultra-strong Greek liquor. The first place I ever saw Absinthe was in Prague in 2002, when it was still illegal to own it in the States (the US ban was from 1912 – 2007). I’ve never drank it before but was always curious about it.
According to this website, “The late 19th-century absinthe boom coincided with the widespread adoption of the large lithographic poster as a potent advertising and artistic medium. Absinthe posters are some of the most widely reproduced Art Nouveau images, and are especially sought after by modern-day absinthe drinkers.” Posters like two below are still popular today.
Maurin Quina’s Green Devil poster, 1906
Privet-Livemount’s Absinthe Robette poster, 1896
In addition to advertising art, some pretty major art came from absinthe drinkers. The height of Absinthe popularity was from 1870s – 1910s, right about the time that the Impressionists were creating some pretty amazing art. Some of the artists and poets that were swigging the “Green Fairy,” as the drink has also been called, included Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Degas, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. For info on these and other famous absinthe drinkers, check out this website. I have previously talked about van Gogh on this blog, as he is one of my favorite artists ever. Edouard Manet paved the way for the Impressionists, at least as far as painting urban landscapes and the contemporary café scene. This sort of thing was unheard of during that time period. One of Manet’s most famous and last painting The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, shows exactly what life in a cafe-bar was like. This was where I saw my first bottle of Bass Pale Ale, as pictured in the left and right corners of the bar top. According to this newspaper writer’s archive page on the painting, “But attention is inevitably distracted from this enticing array of consumer drinkables by the devastating expression on the barmaid’s face. She looks up with weary detachment, ready to take another order; but behind her mask of forced, professional impassivity there is an expression of infinite sadness.” That is one of the reasons I have always found this painting to be so interesting. I had no idea, but I’m not surprised at the following idea (given the time period) also taken from the previous source: “Bar staff were hired for their attractiveness and encouraged to maximise turnover by flirting with the clientele. They acquired a reputation for doing rather more than flirting, which may explain why so many of the critics who wrote about Manet’s painting when it was first shown assumed that the barmaid was also a covert prostitute.”
Edouard Manet, The Bar at Folies-Bergere, 1882
I’ve always found Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to be an intriguing character and the fact that he drank absinthe and that it contributed to his interesting paintings, is no surprise. Because of aristocratic inbreeding, he had health problems and only grew to about 5 ft tall. This Post-Impressionist was another urban painter who liked to paint scenes like the Moulin Rouge, the Ballet, brothels, racetracks and scenes in and around Montmartre where he lived. Apparently van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec were good friends, after they met in Parisin 1886, where Vincent had moved to be with his brother Theo. According to this website: “For two years they painted and exhibited together, influencing each other’s work, but in February 1888, on Lautrec’s advice, Van Gogh moved to the south of France.” When he created this pastel portrait of van Gogh in 1887, you can see the influence of Absinthe in the work, by the yellows and greens that he uses, plus the fact that Vincent is actually drinking the alcohol in the picture.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1887
Vincent Van Gogh did drink Absinthe, but it did not make him go mad like some people assume, though a family history of mental illness helped with that tremendously. Malnutrition and an excess of smoking didn’t help his bad health any either. His drinking of Absinthe contributed in a way to his painting style, which can be seen in works like The Starry Night and The Night Cafe, in the way there are yellow halos around the lights and stars. It is true that some scholars say the reasoning behind this is epilepsy, not absinthe, but van Gogh scholars are not 100% agreed upon the exact conditions that he had. I think he was definitely bi-polar and probably had lead poisoning too, which may or may not have been the reason for the excessive use of yellow in his paintings.
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, The Night Cafe on the Place Lamartine, 1888