How did absinthe influence artists like Degas, Manet, van Gogh and Picasso, and writers like Verlaine, Rimbaud, Wilde and Hemingway?
Absinthe – because of its beautiful and ever-changing green colour, its air of danger and seduction, and above all because of its allegedly psychoactive properties – was romanticized and captured in artwork and writings by countless artists, playwrights and authors. The surrealist Alfred Jarry, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, Picasso, Hemingway and many others all featured it prominently in their works. All these artists were celebrated not just for their work, but also for their often outrageously bohemian lifestyles. Some even went mad, or at least behaved as if they were (facts that would later be used by prohibitionists as proof of absinthe’s evils).
Degas‘ groundbreaking L’Absinthe (1876) pictures two forlorn-looking café patrons staring out beyond their milky-green drinks. Although the people pictured were merely actors, this painting later roused intense comment for its unprecedented gritty realism. Edouard Manet, took this even further by daring to paint an actual drunkard with absinthe, titled The Absinthe Drinker (1859).
Perhaps the most famous of all absinthe drinkers was Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh painted many of his works in ochres and pale greens, which are the colours of absinthe. Many of these paintings also depict the bar in which Van Gogh drank absinthe, and himself with glasses of the apéritif. It’s widely, but almost certainly incorrectly believed, that Van Gogh went mad from absinthe poisoning. As is often the case, the truth is more complex.
Van Gogh was throughout his life an outcast and a depressive who suffered from epileptic fits and bouts of psychotic attacks. He also drank a lot of absinthe while living in Arles with Paul Gauguin, and was prone to deeply eccentric behaviour – such as painting outside at night with candles hooked to his hat. He was sent to a sanitorium in 1888 after he was forced out by a petition from people in his town who were frightened by his bizarre ways. He never acted violently, excepting when he sliced off his own ear during a psychotic fit.
Van Gogh certainly drank excessive amounts of absinthe, and he did suffer from mental deterioration – however, the one does not necessarily follow the other. Van Gogh’s family had a history of mental illness, and van Gogh not only drank absinthe, but also turpentine on several occasions (it’s interesting to note that thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood, is a terpene). He committed suicide in 1890, clearly deeply disturbed over and above the consequences of his absinthe drinking.
The great French poet Paul Verlaine was another notorious absintheur. His family life was less than ordinary: Verlaine’s mother kept the foetuses of her three earlier, miscarried pregnancies preserved in jars in the pantry. Verlaine attacked his mother and then destroyed Verlaine began drinking as a teenager, and was already an alcoholic before he found absinthe. His disastrous on-again, off-again relationship with Rimbaud aggravated both his alcoholism and his mental instability, and culminated in a 5 year prison sentence for attempted murder. In prison he had sworn off absinthe, and for several years after his release drank only beer and worked steadily at his poetry. But by the 1890’s he was drinking heavily again, and had become a well-known and pathetic figure in the Latin Quarter, sitting in a corner at the Cafe Francois Ier on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or at La Procope, nursing absinthe after absinthe.
Verlaine’s last years were spent in and out of hospitals and institutions, were he was treated for amongst other things cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia, rheumatism, gonorrhea and syphilis. During his last illness the hospital nurses would overlook the small bottles of absinthe his friends tucked under his pillow; they knew he was too far gone now for such small pleasures to make any difference. Verlaine died in 1896, drinking to the end, although he had bitterly repented of his absinthe addiction in his Confessions, published the previous year :
“…later on I shall have to relate many […] absurdities which I owe to my abuse of this horrible drink: this drink, this abuse itself, the source of folly and crime, of idiocy and shame, which governments should tax heavily if they do not suppress it altogether: Absinthe!”
Absinthe also features very prominently in the early works of Pablo Picasso. One of the most important works of his so called Blue Period is Woman Drinking Absinthe. Painted in 1901, it shows a woman dressed in blue and with elongated hands and fingers, sitting at a corner table in a café, with a glass of absinthe before her. Later, Picasso’s earliest cubist works were inspired by absinthe – one, Bottle of Pernod and Glass, painted in 1912, was directly based on a ubiquitous Pernod publicity poster of the era, designed by Charles Maire, showing a bottle of absinthe, a glass, and a folded newspaper.
Perhaps Picasso’s greatest absinthe masterpiece – and the last one, because the drink was banned the following year – is his cubist sculpture ‘Absinthe Glass’ of 1914, a painted bronze in an edition of six, all of which were painted differently. The sculpture has a stable, glass like base, but an opened out, sliced up body. On top rests a real absinthe spoon and a painted bronze sugar cube.
Although not an alcoholic (at least till the last year of his life), the great poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, was a heavy absinthe drinker during the time he lived in France. He once famously said :
“Absinthe has a wonderful colour, green. A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
Wilde also described the effect of absinthe as follows :
“The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things. One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and began to pile the chairs on the tables.
‘Time to go, Sir’ he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor. ’Time’s up Sir. I’m afraid you must go now, Sir.’
‘Waiter, are you watering the flowers?’ I asked, but he didn’t answer.
‘What are your favourite flowers, waiter?’ I asked again.
‘Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time’s up,’ he said firmly. ‘I’m sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,’ I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt – the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins.”
The American writer Ernest Hemingway was a heavy drinker, and a passionate lover of absinthe, which he continued drinking in Spain and Cuba, long after it was banned in France. The most notable mention of absinthe is in his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. The hero is Robert Jordan, an American guerrilla leader on a mission to blow up a bridge, and one of his few comforts is absinthe, the ‘liquid alchemy’ which can replace everything else, and which irresistibly recalls the better life he had known in Paris. Holed up in a cave, he shares a canteen filled with absinthe purchased in Madrid with a gypsy companion :
“It was a milky yellow now with the water and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. One cap of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosks, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ille de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening; of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.”
When Hemingway lived in Florida in the 1930’s, he was still able to obtain absinthe from nearby Cuba, where he often went marlin fishing and later acquired a house. In a 1931 letter he writes :
“Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife underhand into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all the furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it.”
No doubt Hemingway enjoyed the humorous transposition here of woodworm and wormwood, although whether the long suffering Mrs Hemingway was equally amused at having knives thrown at her furniture, is not recorded….