Absinthe: Murder, Mayhem, and Master Painters
Hey everyone, welcome back to another inspiring article! Huge thanks for all of the support, I really appreciate everyone!
Today we are going to take a look at something that seemed to mesmerize the master painters of the 1800’s. It’s a magical, black licorice tasting beverage called “Absinthe,” also known as “The Green Fairy.” It was banned for the longest time, around 1915, because of it’s addictive and hallucinogenic qualities…er, side effects. They don’t call it “The green Fairy” for nothing! Let’s take a look at some artwork inspired by this green concoction (my drawing included) and learn more about the master painters that loved to consume it on a regular basis.
Murder: Why was Absinthe Really Banned?
Absinthe was made from anise (has a very strong black licorice taste…I tried a martini made with this and it was NASTY), fennel, and wormwood (Artimisia Absinthium is the plant name), but you can’t add it to your list of healthy drinks…or can you?
Wormwood is actually mentioned in the Bible many times, and it was used to help kill intestinal worms. Hmmm, sounds delicious! Surprisingly, the ingredient known to have caused the hallucinogenic reputation is a chemical in wormwood called thujone. Yet, there isn’t enough thujone in absinthe to cause the convulsions, hallucinations, and toxic danger created by high doses. You’d more likely die of alcohol poisoning first because it is extremely high in alcohol content (45-75%). It’s a great story though, and it keeps getting interesting!
All ingredients aside, the event that helped ban absinthe all across Europe was caused by a French man (in Switzerland) by the name of Jean Lanfray. He was on a bender and killed his family (pregnant wife and two daughters) in a drunken rage…all because his wife wouldn’t polish his shoes. He survived his suicide attempt and was convicted of all murders. Even though his list of alcohol consumed that day only consisted of two glasses of absinthe, it took the blame for the gruesome event.
Total alleged drink list for his enraged murder:
1. Seven glasses of wine
2. Six glasses of cognac
3. Two coffee’s laced with brandy
4. Two crème de menthes
5. Two glasses of absinthe
Shock waves were sent across Europe, and absinthe was eventually banned until around 2008. Recent discoveries proved that absinthe was no more harmful than any other alcohol, and companies could continue to make it as long as it didn’t contain wormwood. Absinthe just isn’t the same without the original ingredients.
Why do They Call it “The Green Fairy”
Absinthe could be called “The Green Fairy” for many reasons. First, the color is usually green due to the wormwood herb. The new stuff released after 2008 is mostly artificially colored. Second, the menthol fumes created by the mixing of water and absinthe set off a “cloud of perfume”….hence making it a female entity. Third, if it’s set on fire, the flames could create a ghostly illusion above the caramelizing sugar cube. Getty thirsty yet?
The Green Fairy is said to steal the talent of the brilliant; to make geniuses of mediocrities. She is the nectar of poets, and suppose to be an aphrodisiac. With alternative names like Green Witch, Green Devil, and Green Muse, who would want to make this their beverage of choice? Artists, that’s who!
Famous Artists that Drank Absinthe
There are a ton of very famous artists that were regular consumers of absinthe, and you’ll probably really love most of their work. Not that absinthe truly had anything to do with their success, but it’s something they all had in common. Artists that loved to guzzle the green stuff include Ernest Hemingway (novelist), Arthur Rimbaud (poet), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (painter), Oscar Wilde (playwright), Amedeo Modigliani (painter), Pablo Picasso (painter), Vincent van Gogh (painter), Erik Satie (composer and pianist), and Edgar Allan Poe (writer). It’s also portrayed cinematically in movies like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” starring Gary Oldman, and “From Hell” starring Johnny Depp.
There is some overlap with these artists as well. For instance, Lautrec was friends with Van Gogh and he painted Vincent drinking a glass of absinthe. Van Gogh was said to have been under the influence of absinthe when he sliced a part of his ear off, but his manic depression is probably more to blame. Lautrec was also in love with the green beverage and was known to have a walking cane hollowed out to store it. Lautrec was also friends with Oscar Wilde, who we’ll learn more about in a sec.
Pablo Picasso drew Erik Sati as seen below. Both loved to indulge in the green fairy.
If you listen to Sati’s “Gymnopédie No.1” you’ll instantly be transported to a Parisian city street where you might see Van Gogh staring blankly into the distance and sipping on his trippy green cocktail.
We can see that Arthur Rimbaud (second from far left, bottom) was painted by Henri Fantin-Latour, another master painter. All of these guys seemed to be in the avant-garde crowd…painters, poets, writers…all mixing together and inspiring each other.
Oscar Wilde and His Tale of Absinthe
Oscar Wilde was a well known playwright and probably has one of the most descriptive tales of how absinthe messes with the mind.
“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas.If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. ~ Oscar Wilde
More Amazing Absinthe Artwork
As you look at a lot of absinthe artwork, you’ll notice how everyone is dazed. They stare out into oblivion as the green fairy consumes their humanity and fills them with inspiration, genius, or rage. For the most part, everyone seems to be drunk out of their mind though!
Absinthe Painting by Pablo Picasso.
Picasso made an interesting absinthe sculpture as well as several more paintings.
I love this painting by Edgar Degas. That lady is so wasted! (see a corrected version of this painting in #444).
Absinthe Painting by Toulouse Lautrec.
Absinthe Painting by Alfred Brisard.
Jean Beraud did several paintings featuring absinthe, with similar looking characters throughout each one. Was he a consumer of it? My guess is YES!
Absinthe Painting by Jean Beraud.
I love this modernized concept where the girl is clearly out of her mind.
Absinthe Painting by Pamela Wilson.
Watch This Before You Try Absinthe For Yourself
Here’s a hilarious video of the history of absinthe and people drinking it for the first time. Their facial expressions are priceless!
How Absinthe is Prepared
Drinking absinthe can be done in many ways, but there is a certain ritual to the classic absinthe drinkers of the past. Specific utensils are required to make the green fairy come alive, and most of them can be seen below.
You definitely need a cool looking glass, the weird looking spoon, and a cube of sugar. One way I’ve seen the absinthe being prepared is by dripping absinthe onto the sugar cube, then lighting it on fire. The sugar cube caramelizes as it drips into the green pool of absinthe. Once the sugar is melted, the concoction is mixed, then sipped.
Lautrec even invented his own drink that was half absinthe and half cognac. He called it the “Earthquake” because it probably made you walk and tremble like there was one going on. Sounds fun!
Below is a photo of Lautrec drinking absinthe (left).
My Take On Absinthe
When I traveled to Europe with my good friend Eric (2010), I was able to try absinthe for the first time in Bern, Switzerland. This article is dedicated to Eric by the way. He was always repeating the interesting stories of absinthe to me, and convinced me to finally try it.
With all of Eric’s explicit warnings of potential hallucinations, I downed the little bottle of absinthe (see below) like a champ, tasted the strong licorice flavor, but felt nothing in return. No buzz, no green fairy, no nothing. The story had been built up to the conclusion of disappointment. If I consumed more than an ounce, perhaps the green fairy would show her ghoulish face?? Maybe I escaped an experience that would’ve changed my life. Or, maybe I just avoided a bad hangover. The world may never know!
Try absinthe for yourself, or take everyone’s word for it. Dig deep into the myth and all of the tales, and let it inspire a piece of art. Here’s a drawing I did that was inspired by absinthe. I’m a photographer that is trying to learn more about drawing, so I still have some work to do. I’m learning more about drawing light in order to render it further, but this is as far as I’ve gotten so far (designed in a root 2). Thanks for joining in today everyone! See you next time!