Who says you can’t learn about art from a bottle of alcohol. I am here to negate all the naysayers. I started the journey for this post from the cover of a bottle of Absinthe. So come with me and we shall embark on a journey to the mythical world of the green fairy.
Object that started this journey, The bottle of Absinthe.
Absinthe is a distilled alcohol, needless to say it has high alcohol content, 68%; you aren’t going anywhere after two shots of this drink. Legend has it that a French doctor, Dr. Pierre Ordinaire living in the Suisse town of Couvet, in the Canton of Neuchâtel, found wormwood plant in the forest and started to experiment with it to use for medicinal purposes. After many trials, he developed a recipe that cured many ailments. The village folk who were cured by this magic elixir named this formula “la Fée Verte”, “the green fairy”. And no, you do not see any green fairies after drinking absinthe, as it is popularly touted. I tried it trust me, I speak from experience. Later this cure-all recipe was passed down multiple hands when it finally reached, Major Dubied. The Major, along with his sons, built the first commercial Absinthe distillery in Couvet under the name of “Dubied Père et Fils”, which began producing the first commercial absinthe in 1798.And thus were the beginnings of Absinthe as we know it today.
“Absinthe Drinker” (Czech: Piják absintu), Viktor Oliva (Czech Painter)
The heroine of our story, “Le Madame Absinthe” reached the peak of its popularity when the most popular drink of the 19th century Europe, monsieur wine became a precious commodity. Towards the end of 19th century the vineyards of England and France were infected with an insect called “Grape Phylloxera”. Most of the vineyards suffered major losses and needless to say that whatever was left, was not enough wine to spare for all. Resultantly the prices of wine skyrocketed over night and whatever wine was available in the market became precious commodity that only the elite with enough money to throw around could afford. This was the turning point in the legend of Absinthe. Absinthe was already gaining in popularity, due to its exotic flavor, and high alcohol content, and supposedly hallucinogenic properties. A little of Absinthe went a long way to help you forget the blues and make you merry. Due to the rarity and high prices of wine, le bourgeois (the common man) turned to the arms of the famed green fairy. And the green fairy happily obliged by giving refuge to the oppressed and the artistic in her bosom.
Painting Of Green Muse (french:La muse verte)1895, Albert Maignan (French Painter)
This is where things turn interesting; artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Lautrec, Manet, Gauguin, Degas were all part of that bourgeois crowd, the poor artists, with no money but many sorrows. They all came to take refuge under the affordable shelter of the Green fairy and as always the lover of the poor, the mythical green fairy did not disappoint.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso’s four ‘Absinthe Drinker’ second from top the 35M pound painting.(Spanish born Painter)
Absinthe drinking became such an integral part of the artistic, that some of the painters dedicated entire paintings to absinthe drinking. Picasso painted four paintings titled ‘The absinthe drinker’, one of which owned by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber sold for 35 million pounds at an auction at Christie’s. See what can come from a bottle of Absinthe in the right hands, MILLIONS.
‘The Absinthe Drinker’ (french: L’Absinthe) Edgar Degas (french painter)
It almost seems like it was a right of way for painters to paint an “Absinthe drinker” to prove to the fellow artists, that they belonged in the creative, hallucinating club. Degas, Ihly, Manet, Picasso, Raffaëlli all these artists have at least one painting titled, ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ in their repertoire. Lautrec went out even further and trumped all ‘Absinthe drinker’ painting artists, he painted, Van Gogh drinking Absinthe.
Potrait of Vincent Van Gogh (French:Portrait de Vincent van Gogh) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (french painter)
But if you thought that is the extent of green fairy’s black book, you couldn’t be more wrong. And then there were the poets and the writers, more who were not far enough to repel the enduring allure of the green fairy. Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway were all suitors in the ever lengthening queue. In fact Absinthe also featured in the writings, of Earnest Hemingway’s, “Death in the afternoon” and “For whom the bell tolls” and Charles Baudelaire’s “Get drunk” and “Even when she walks”
Here are some of the musings of Oscar Wilde on Absinthe:
“After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”
“If he didn’t drink [absinthe], he would be somebody else. Personality must be accepted for what it is. You mustn’t mind that a poet is a drunk, rather that drunks are not always poets.”
There has been a long history of Absinthe’s illicit affairs with the artistic, and even though my linking the two was not out of the ordinary, for me it was a voyeuristic journey. You might be wondering why is it that I did not write more about Van Gogh, the man whose picture starred on the bottle of my Absinthe, the craziest of all crazy stories associated with the green fairy. Well that is because I am writing a whole ol’ post on the big guy, the Lessons learned from a bottle of Absinthe part II: life and mystery of Van Gogh. But before I end this particular voyage to the smoke filled, fantastic world of the drunk and the creative, I will leave you with the famous Van Gogh Absinthe story.
‘The Absinthe Drinker’ Edouard Manet (French Painter)
‘Still Life with Absinthe’ Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch Post impressionist Painter)
Vincent Van Gogh, at the time of our story was sharing boarding with a fellow artist Paul Gauguin. One night while talking over a bottle of Absinthe the two artists got in to a heated debate over artistic differences and an enraged Gauguin left the house to spend the night in a hotel. When Gauguin returned the next morning, there was police outside the house and blood stains inside. On inquiring Gauguin was informed that the previous night Vincent got really inebriated and cut off a big chunk of his ear. Van Gogh then visited the brothel and presented the prostitute with a parcel, he told her to keep it safe, as it may be extremely precious one day. Obviously the curious prostitute opened the package, and then she promptly fainted on viewing it’s contents : the parcel contained a chunk of human ear, the presenters.
‘Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear’ Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch Post Impressionist artist)