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Why absinthe inspired so many great artists

Why absinthe inspired so many great artists

Harry Pearson explores how “the green fairy” influenced many famous painters such as Picasso, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec

“Whisky and beer are for fools; absinthe for poets,” wrote Ernest Dowson in 1899.

The powerful, green French spirit had, Dowson claimed, “the power of magicians.” Others amongst the European artistic set agreed with the Englishman. They nicknamed absinthe “the green fairy” or “the green goddess” and credited the drink with increasing their powers of creativity and freeing their minds. 

Artists under the influence 

Absinthe would inspire, or feature, in some of the greatest European paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Edouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker (1859) to Pablo Picasso’s Two Women Seated at a Bar (1902) via Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe (1875/76) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of an absinthe-sodden Vincent van Gogh, completed in 1887.

Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the green fairy’s most zealous worshippers. He carried a hollow walking cane filled with the spirit and taught his pet cormorant Tom to drink it with him (tragically, Tom was later shot by hunters). The Frenchman’s works were, his friend the artist Gustave Moreau noted, “entirely painted in absinthe”.

Edouard Manet The Absinthe Drinker

Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, 1859 © Édouard Manet, Public domain

Toulouse-Lautrec’s contemporaries also fell under the spell of the green goddess. Paul Verlaine, Walter Sickert, Edgar Allan Poe and Paul Gaugin drank it heavily. Oscar Wilde compared a glass of absinthe to a sunset and said that after three glasses a person saw the world as it truly was. The Belgian illustrator Felicien Rops haunted the dancehalls of Paris, drinking absinthe and drawing women with “eyes of electric death”.  

All in the mind 

The green fairy was, to the Bohemians of that era, what LSD would be to the hippies of the 1960s. It opened the doors of perception. 

"The effects of absinthe were, literally, all in the mind"

Except that it didn’t. Because all the claims made for absinthe—and they range from boosting male potency to reviving lost appetite—are scientifically untrue. The effects of absinthe were, literally, all in the mind. 

Absinthe’s origins 

The drink that would have such a profound effect on the creative world was invented by French physician, Pierre Ordinaire. A royalist who had gone into exile in Switzerland in 1790, Dr Ordinaire used wormwood and 14 other herbs, steeped in high-strength alcohol, to produce a digestive. The drink was potent and extremely bitter. Its name was derived from the Greek absinthion, which means “undrinkable”—hardly the best marketing ploy.  

Edgar Degas In a Cafe

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1875/76 © Edgar Degas, Public domain

Dr Ordinaire died unmarried and childless. He bequeathed the recipe for his elixir to his housekeeper, Madame Henriod. For some reason this lady believed the drink was an aphrodisiac and sold it as such. In 1897, one of her customers, Major Dubied, evidently impressed, bought the recipe from her and set up a distillery to produce the drink with his son-in-law, Henry Louis Pernod. The new company was called Pernod et Fils. 

In the 1830s, Pernod’s absinthe got a big boost in sales when it was supplied to French soldiers fighting in Algeria as a means for fending off malaria (there’s no evidence it did). The soldiers got a taste for it and continued drinking absinthe when they returned home.  

The green hour 

In the 1860s, French vineyards were ravaged by the phylloxera bug. The price of wine skyrocketed. Absinthe offered a cheap alternative. Parisians started drinking it in place of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon.

"The fashionable and the artistic, rich and poor, would process from one bar to the next"

Soon the fashion in the French capital was to drink absinthe between 5pm and 6pm, a period of the day that became known as “the green hour”. The fashionable and the artistic, rich and poor, would process from one bar to the next until the sickly scent of the lurid green drink hung over the boulevards like mist above an autumn lake. 

Not mystical, just strong 

By the start of the 20th century, the French were consuming 36 million litres of absinthe a year. The problem was that, while even strong red wine comes in at around 14 per cent alcohol by volume, the absinthe being sold in those days was a mighty 80 per cent abv.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Van Gogh, 1887 © Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Public domain

If absinthe gave people hallucinations, it was not because of the wormwood (which contains traces of the narcotic thujone, though in insufficient quantities to have any effect when diluted with alcohol) or any mystical powers, but simply because it was twice as strong as modern gin or whisky.  

Absinthe drinkers displayed a strange and ghostly pallor, not because they had surrendered to some other worldly demon and entered a dreamlike state of consciousness, but because they were nursing the worst hangovers the world has ever known.  

Blamed for a collapse of public morality 

Absinthe was credited with powers it did not possess, it was also blamed for things for which it was not responsible. These ranged from epilepsy and tuberculosis, to madness, trade unionism and the women’s campaign for equal rights. More generally, absinthe was blamed for a collapse in public morality.  

"Absinthe was blamed for things for which it was not responsible"

The British writer Marie Corelli, surveying Paris at the end of the 19th century wrote that the “low standard of moral responsibility” was entirely the fault of “reckless absinthemania”.  More and more it seemed that politicians and the judiciary agreed. The sale and production of absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1906, in the Netherlands in 1908, in the land of its birth, Switzerland in 1910 and the USA in 1912.  

When the First World War began, the green fairy was identified as a danger to French morale. In what was described by France’s Minister of the Interior as “an act of self-defence”, the National Assembly outlawed absinthe in 1914. Time had been rung on the green hour. Pablo Picasso marked the day by creating a sculpture, Glass of Absinthe. It would be the last artwork the green fairy inspired. 

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