Artists, Writers and Poets

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 de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde (see The Effects of Absinthe for more about Wilde), Edgar Allan Poe, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and many others all featured it prominently in their works. All these artists were celebrated not just for their artistic output, but also for their often outrageously bohemian lifestyles.Absinthe J.Edouard PernotPerhaps 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 his paintings also depict the bar in which he habitually drank absinthe and he painted several self portraits which featured glasses of the apéritif. It’s widely but incorrectly believed that Van Gogh went mad from absinthe poisoning. As is often the case with the drink and its reputation, the truth is more complex.
Van Gogh certainly drank excessive amounts of absinthe, and he did suffer from mental deterioration – however, there is no evidence that the one was a consequence of the other. Van Gogh’s family had a long history of mental illness, and van Gogh not only drank absinthe, but also all sorts of other alcohol and even turpentine on several occasions (it’s interesting to note that thujone, the active ingredient in wormwood, is a terpene). Throughout much of his life Van Gogh was effectively an outcast from society and a manic-depressive who suffered from periodic epileptic fits and, eventually, bouts of psychotic attacks. He drank very heavily while living in Arles with Paul Gauguin, and was prone to deeply eccentric behaviour – such as eating his paints, or painting outside at night with candles hooked to his hat. He was sent to a sanitarium in 1888 after he was forced out by a petition from local townspeople who were frightened by what they considered his bizarre ways. He never acted violently, except when he sliced off his own ear during a psychotic fit. Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890, clearly a deeply disturbed man over and above any possible consequences of his absinthe drinking.
Degas’ ground breaking 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 depict an actual drunkard with an absinthe in a painting titled The Absinthe Drinker (1859).
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 with elongated hands and fingers, sitting at a corner table in a café, with a glass of absinthe in front of her. Later, Picasso’s earliest cubist works were also inspired by absinthe – Bottle of Pernod and Glass, painted in 1912, was directly based on an ubiquitous publicity poster of the era, designed by Charles Maire for Pernod Fils, showing a bottle of absinthe, a glass, and a folded newspaper. A print of Maire’s painting hung in Picasso’s studio, and is reflected in several of his paintings and collages.

 

Pernod Fils Pontarlier

Based on a painting by Charles Maire (1845 – 1919), this print advertising Pernod Fils once hung in almost every bar and cafe in France. Unusually, the chromolithograph was backed onto canvas, and then varnished, giving it the appearance of an original oil, an effect enhanced by the custom made gilt-wood frame. Both Picasso and Braque were influenced by this image, using it as the inspiration for some of their paintings.

Perhaps Picasso’s greatest absinthe masterpiece – and the last one, because the drink was banned the following year, is his cubist sculpture Verre d’Absinthe of 1914 (see below), 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. It seems at least possible that this newly discovered bronze publicity casting for Absinthe Junod (right) might have influenced the development of this sculpture The similarities are striking: both stand around 20 cm tall, both are cast bronze but incorporate a realabsinthe spoon on which is affixed a bronze sugar cube and both have a conical base rising to a vertical “Yvonne” shape.

 

Picasso - Verre d'Absinthe

One of the 6 versions of Picasso’s Verre d’Absinthe in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Absinthe Glass

L'absinthe

Influence alcoolisme

Le Rire 1904 – A full page cartoon by Henri Avelot satirizing the effects of alcohol and absinthe on the avant-garde artists of the day.

Poésie française

The three great French poets of the era, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, were all prodigious absinthe drinkers, although direct references to the drink in their poems are surprisingly rare. The popular master of light verse, Raoul Ponchon (1848 – 1937) however, dedicated several poems to La Fée Verte.
Originally a bank employee, Ponchon quit his job after his father’s death in 1871, and set himself up at the age of 23 in a garret with the words “Painter and Lyrical Poet” written on the door. He would take his breakfast in the Café de Cluny, then return at 5pm for l’heure verte. The rest of the day he spent holding court at various other cafés. Ponchon was astonishingly prolific, writing 150 000 verses, of which over 7000 were about food and drink, including many dealing specifically with absinthe. His poems were accessible, often earthy, and sprinkled with the street argot of the day. Their publication in such popular journals as Le Courier Français, to which he contributed for 21 years, made him the supreme poète-journaliste. This fragile issue of Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui below, has a caricature of Ponchon hovering over a glass of absinthe by Frédéric Auguste Cazals (1865-1941), printed in black and hand-coloured au pochoir. The three page tribute to Ponchon inside, which quotes his poem Five o’clock Absinthe in full, is written by his friend Paul Verlaine. Verlaine writes:

“Car Raoul Ponchon est un poète très original, un écrivain absolument soi, descendant, c’est clair, d’une tradition, ainsi que tous, du reste, mais d’une tradition «de la première» française en diable, avec tout le diable au corps et tout l’esprit du diable, d’un bon diable tendre aux pauvres diable et diablement spirituel, coloré, musical, joli comme tout, fin comme l’ambre, léger, tel Ariel, et amusant, tel Puck, bon rimeur (j’ai mes idées sur la Rime et quand je dis «bon rimeur» je m’entends à merveille et c’est de ma part le suprême éloge), excellent versificateur aussi (je m’entends encore), un écrivain, enfin, tout saveur, un poète tout sympathie! “

Ponchon was a friend and supporter of both Verlaine and Rimbaud; he was one of only about half a dozen men who owned a copy of Rimbaud’s first book during Rimbaud’s lifetime.

An evocative full page lithograph by Pierre Morel illustrates Raoul Ponchon’s “Sonnet de l’Absinthe”, in this 1886 issue of Le Courier Français. This first printing of the poem has the variant first line “Absinthe, ô ma liqueur alerte”, which Ponchon later changed to : “Absinthe, je t’adore, certes!”Ponchon’s work appeared regularly in Le Courier Français from 1886 to 1907.

Paul Verlaine

A life-long alcoholic, Verlaine was a notorious absinthe drinker. His early family life was certainly less than ordinary: his mother kept the foetuses of her three earlier, miscarried pregnancies preserved in jars in the pantry. Verlaine attacked his mother and then destroyed these one day during an “absinthe fit”.

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. The terrible toll the drink took on him is clearly visible in the photograph shown on the following page.

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 a few months after he sat for this Dornac portrait, 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!”

An illustrated article on the dangers of absinthe from Je Sais Tout 1907. It includes a spoof of the famous Renouard engraving, showing Verlaine (on the left) as one of the “absinthe professors.”

The portraits that the celebrated Parisian photographer Paul Marsan Dornac collected and published as Les Contemporains Chez Eux show the notable literary and intellectual figures of Paris in their private cabinets de travail surrounded by artworks, books and tools of their trade. Uniquely, this 1896 photo of the great poet and habitual absintheur Paul Verlaine shows this melancholic figure in the last year of his life with his ever-present glass of absinthe seated in a café. The location is believed to be the Café François Ier, although it may also show the Café Procope, which to this day has similar leather banquettes against the walls.
Although the original photograph was taken in 1896, this albumen print (12,2 x 17 cm), flush-mounted to the original studio board with the photographer’s name and address below the image on the mount, is dated 1902 in black ink on the reverse. Aside from his hat and cane, Verlaine has a water carafe, a large glass of absinthe, an ink-well, a blotter and paper, and a pyrogene on the marble tabletop in front of him. Absinthiana collectors often refer to this type of large verre oeuf as a “Verlaine glass” on account of its depiction in this photograph.

Alphonse Allais

The remarkable French humorist Alphonse Allais was born in Honfleur in 1854. He started training as a pharmacist in Paris but, seduced by the Bohemian lifestyle, became a writer and café habitué. At l’heure verte, Allais would sit holding an absinthe and recount humorous stories to his friends. When he was happy that he had honed the tale to perfection, he would go to the back of the café alone and write it out for one of the many journals to which he contributed. One of his pieces, published in “Le Chat Noir” in 1885, was perhaps the first use of ‘stream of consciousness’ in literature. Called Absinthes, it follows the thought processes of a struggling writer sitting on a terrasse talking about his rejections: ‘very good, your article… subject interesting… well written but… not in our style’. He watches the sugar from his absinthe melt, then, after the first absinthe, he notes that the boulevards are coming alive and the women seem prettier than they were an hour earlier. He sees the street sellers, has another absinthe, yearns for the women, ponders the people around him, and considers there is a book to be written there, ‘unique, unforgettable…a book that everyone would have to buy…everyone!’ Inspired by the thought, he calls for another absinthe, this time a large one without water. The piece ends there, with the reader knowing that of course this unfortunate dreamer is never in fact going to write a great novel or win the girl of his desires. As Allais said, ‘life is not funny’.

Antoni Deschamps

A remarkable find: the manuscript draft of an apparently unpublished 16 line poem Adversus Absynthium by Antoni Deschamps, written at Fontainebleau in August 1847 and dedicated to Alfred Tattet. It is the earliest known literary work inspired by absinthe.

Antoni Deschamps was born in Paris on the 12th of March 1800 and died at Passy on the 29th of October 1869. Like his elder brother, the better known Emile Deschamps (1791 – 1871), he was an ardent romanticist, but his production was limited by a nervous disorder, which left its mark on his largely melancholy work. He translated the Divina Commedia in 1829, and his poems, Dernires Paroles and Resignation, were republished with his brothers in 1841.

Adversus Absynthium (A l’encontre de l’absinthe)

à Alfred Tattet
Absynthe, monstre né jadis pour notre perte
De l’Afrique à Paris traînant ta robe verte
Comment donc as-tu pu sous le soleil oser
Souiller ses lèvres d’or de ton âcre baiser
Vile prostituée en tes temples assise
Tu te vends à l’esprit ainsi qu’à la sottise
Et ne fais nul souci aux adieux, laurier
Qui couvre le Poëte ainsi que le guerrier
Hélas ! n’avait-il pas assez de l’amertume
A laquelle en vivant tout grand coeur s’accoutume
Aussi que l’eau du ciel ……(illegible)
Qu’il ne reste plus rien de ton amer poison
O monstre sois maudit, je te jette à la face
Les imprécations de Tibulle et d’Horace
Et contre toi j’évoque en mon sein irrité
La langue que parlait la belle antiquité.

Fontainebleau, août 1847
Antoni Deschamps
The transcription is unfortunately incomplete, as the old French script is extremely hard to decipher.