“What is there in absinthe that makes it a separate cult? Even in ruin and in degradation it remains a thing apart: its victims wear a ghastly aureole all their own, and in their peculiar hell yet gloat with a sinister perversion of pride that they are not as other men.” Aleister Crowley, The Green Goddess (1918).
Absinthe has been around since biblical times. The name itself comes from the Greek absinthion meaning undrinkable. Traditionally it was made from the flowers and leaves of wormwood with sweet fennel, green anise and other medicinal and culinary herbs, sometimes with an alcohol content of as much as 80%!
But the modern story of absinthe began in the 1830’s when French troops fighting in Algeria used it as an anti-malarial medicine. Soldiers mixed the bitter drink with wine in order to make it more palatable. They brought absinthe back home with them and middle class Parisians, eager to align themselves with the military soon developed a voracious appetite for the green goddess!
Parisiens filled the cafes, drinking one glass after the next, leading writer H P Hugh to observe: “The sickly odour of absinthe lies heavily in the air. The absinthe hour of the Boulevards begins vaguely at half-past five… but the deadly opal drink lasts longer than anything else.”
In the 1870’s many vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera and wine became an expensive commodity. Absinthe could be made cheaply with industrial alcohol. Soon street corner vendors were producing huge quantities for sale at just a few centimes a glass. The love of absinthe spread all over Europe and some parts of the United States, but in many quarters, this, addictive and mind altering drink was mistrusted. Blamed for breaking up relationships, erratic behaviour, concerns were being raised about its psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. By 1915 it had been banned in France, Switzerland, Austro-Hungary, Belgium and the United States.
So why did so many artists and writers become embroiled with this mysterious green drink? Absinthe was the favoured tipple of many of the Surrealists, Modernists, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Cubists. Absinthe drinkers and the ritual paraphernalia: a glass, slotted spoon, sugar cubes and jugs of drinking water became the subject of many late 19th and early 20th century paintings.
Vincent van Gogh was renowned for his love of the green muse. He suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions, but this was due to a number of factors, of which his alcoholism was only one. Many of Van Gogh’s paintings, particularly his skies have an hallucinogenic quality to them and are often tinged with the green hue of absinthe.
Vincent van Gogh, Night Cafe, Sunflowers, Green Wheat Fields
Edouard Manet’s first painting was The Absinthe Drinker, (1857), a portrait of a famous drunk in Paris. When he submitted it to the Salon jury in 1859, it received only one vote of acceptance, due to its vulgar subject matter and crude style.
Edouard Manet, The Absinthe Drinker, (1857)
Edgar Degas’ grim realisation of the effects of the drink, L’Absinthe, (1876) caused a stir in London where critics saw it as a warning against alcohol and the French in general.
Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, (1876)
But the artist perhaps most associated with the drink was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Famous for his depictions of brothels, nightspots and entertainment, Lautrec was rumoured to carry with him a hollow cane inside which he always kept a vial of absinthe.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Mauri Dance
Today’s absinthe is a tongue-numbing drink more associated with amusement than inspiration. Added sometimes in small quantities to cocktails, it has never regained the reputation it enjoyed in 19th century Europe. But the mention of it still conjures up images of bohemian European artists and literary figures, of pavement cafes late at night and a sickly green haze.
Viktor Olivia, Absinthe Drinker, (1901)