The Culture and Mystique of Absinthe

The extreme popularity of this heady liquor stems largely from how it has figured in the world of art and entertainment. From Manet to Wilde to snippets of reference to it in the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge, “la fee verte” has influenced artists’ lives and continues to attract new absintheurs since the lifting of its ban in many places worldwide.

Although its intellectual-heightening effect on great artists of yore cannot be scientifically proven, it’s interesting to note how absinthe has been hailed by geniuses past and present. Below are just a few of the drinks’ many “appearances” in the world of art and culture:

In 1859, the French realist/impressionist Edouard Manet painted the controversial The Absinthe Drinker. Despite studying the works of old masters such as Goya and Velazquez which portrayed the ideals of the past, he opted to become “a painter of modern life” instead. Thus, his painting of a self-indulgent and solitary man in a dark Paris backstreet real but unromanticized was not well-received by the offended art critics.

Paul Marie Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, French poets who forged a sexual and platonic relationship with each other, were both avid absinthe drinkers and were hailed as two of France’s greatest poets. The latter gave up the drink when they violently ended their relationship, while the former, although cursing The Green Fairy while on his deathbed, was allegedly keeping bottles of absinthe under his pillow.

In 1876, Edgar Degas painted L’Absinthe, one of his most feted works today (but bashed by critics in his time). In it he features two acquaintances a male painter/etcher, and an actress. They sit in front of a table with black coffee and a glass of absinthe. The actress stares into space a look that is obviously absinthe-induced. Originally titled Dans Un Cafe, it was renamed in 1893 to capitalize on the drink’s growing popularity.

The eccentric painter Vincent van Gogh painted his still life Glass of Absinthe and a Carafe not long after, in 1887. Shades of absinthe green are everywhere in the work from the water in the carafe to the tablecloth and even on the street outside the window. Scholars deemed that van Gogh drank a lot of the potent liquid with some going so far as believing it to be the reason he cut his ear off although he publicly expressed his avoidance of the drink.

In 1895, Albert Maignan created The Green Muse, depicting a green fairy (in reference to the drink) lending inspiration to a poet, with her figure hovering above the poet’s head and her diaphanous green gown billowing around him. The painting was also known as Notre-Dame de L’Oubli (Our Lady of Forgetting) or L’Atroce Sorciere (The Atrocious Sorceress).

Not to be discounted is Pablo Picasso, the Father of Cubism. During his “Blue Period” (1901-1904), or the time when his artworks depicted society’s outcasts such as beggars, prostitutes, and starving fellow artists, he painted The Absinthe Drinker and Woman Drinking Absinthe. His style then was realistic, while he shifted to ‘synthetic cubist’ mode while painting Bottle of Pernod and Glass in 1912.

It is said that literary giant Ernest Hemingway drank absinthe even after it had already been banned in several countries, keeping a number of bottles in the U.S. and having a go at the liquor before running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. The drink is mentioned in several of his works, most notably in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Death in the Afternoon.

Perhaps as fond of absinthe as Hemingway was painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who walked around with a hollow cane that ingeniously housed a draught of the green drink. His work depicts the Moulin Rouge lifestyle bars, brothels, and music halls. Fellow painter Gustave Moreau went as far as commenting that Toulouse-Lautrec’s canvases were “entirely painted in absinthe”.

And who could dissociate the incomparable Oscar Wilde from this emerald infusion? His Bohemian lifestyle and his singular wit certainly went well with the intoxicating liquid, of which he spoke: “It first is like normal drinking, but then you start to see unbelievably gruelling things. But if you don’t give up then you reach the third phase, and you see wonderful and amazing things.”

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