Art and Alcohol

Vincent Van Gogh, The Drinkers, 1953, Art Institute of Chicago via Wikidata

Feature image: Vincent Van Gogh, The Drinkers, 1953, Art Institute of Chicago via Wikidata

Art and Alcohol

Throughout history, alcohol has played a significant role in art, serving as both a subject and a catalyst for creativity. From ancient Bacchanalian revelries to the sophisticated gatherings of the Impressionists, the depiction of alcohol in art offers a rich tapestry of cultural and social commentary. Artists have long been drawn to the allure of wine, spirits, and communal drinking, capturing scenes of celebration, indulgence, and sometimes the darker consequences of intoxication.

James Ensor, The Drunkards, 1883 via WikiArt
James Ensor, The Drunkards, 1883 via WikiArt

Absinthe and Art

Absinthe is one of the most controversial spirits, with a history closely associated with the art world. Absinthe was illegal in the United States for over a century, only becoming legal in 2007. Absinthe is made with anise, fennel, and a mildly psychoactive herb in the Artemisia family called wormwood. Wormwood was used in traditional folk medicine in Europe and contains high levels of a psychoactive terpene called thujone, which is thought to cause hallucinations in large doses. However, once this ingredient is diluted into an alcoholic drink, it’s hard to say if the so-called insanity is caused by the herb or absinthe’s high alcohol content and low sugar. 

Throughout history, Absinthe has been blamed for madness, crimes, and moral decay. In 19th century France, absinthe was enjoyed recreationally by many artists like Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, and Picasso. These artists praised the drink for its ability to put them in a creative state. In literature and art, green fairies came to symbolize absinthe, as it appeared an ethereal green when water was added in the ritual of La Louche. Fairies symbolized artistic inspiration in the 19th century. When artists and bohemians believed that Absinthe gave them the inspiration to write and paint, they continued to refer to Absinthe as the Green Fairy, the Green Muse, or the Green Goddess. 5 o’clock in Paris became known as the “green hour.” By 1915, absinthe had a global prohibition due to its portrayal as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug. However, because it was mostly enjoyed by the working class and bohemians, its stigma is often attributed to a greater social fear of freedom and leisure amongst the lower classes. 

Viktor Oliva, Absinthe Drinker, 1901

Oliva was one of many Bohemian artists who lingered in Parisian cafes at the turn of the century. This painting is based on the green fairy visiting a creative after a drink of absinthe. The fairy is nude, indicating just how seductive she is to the lonely artist. The waiter has stopped in his tracks, looking appalled. Apparently, he, too, is enthralled by the fairy. 

Viktor Oliva, Absinthe Drinker, 1901
Viktor Oliva, Absinthe Drinker, 1901 via Wikipedia

Vincent Van Gogh, Cafe Table with Absinthe, 1887

This piece is a still life of a glass of absinthe, which Van Gogh frequently drank while creating his signature painting style. His ear removal episode is often attributed to his overconsumption of absinthe and his liberal usage of the color yellow. Today, Van Gogh’s portrait is on the bottle of Absente Van Gogh absinthe, making him one of history's most famous absinthe enjoyers. 

 Vincent Van Gogh, Cafe Table with Absinthe, 1887
Vincent Van Gogh, Cafe Table with Absinthe, 1887 via Wikimedia

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

This piece portrays grim absinthe drinkers in a cafe. The painting was never actually titled L’Absinthe, but rather the doing of an art dealer or later owner. The realism of the piece was later perceived by London art critics as a lesson against alcoholism and French bohemian lifestyles during a time of extreme prejudice against all things French, which contributed to the global prohibition of absinthe. 

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876
Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876 via Wikipedia

Parties

In some paintings, there is no room for darkness. Nature, food, and drink are abundant, and spirits are high. Of course, these sorts of lavish parties were often only enjoyed by the upper classes, reminding us of the privilege and power of leisure. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881

This painting combines figures, still life, and landscape. It depicts a group of the artist’s friends relaxing on a balcony, surrounded by wine and fruit. It is a lively, fun painting of a party. This leisure and its depiction are products of bourgeois society, distracting viewers from the mundane realities of existence. There is wine left over, and there’s a spot for us at the table. In short, the painting is an appreciation of pleasure. We are invited to sit at the table of the Impressionist paradise. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881

Peter Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, 1888

This painting presents drunkenness as a joyous revelry with its impressionistic light effects. The sun shining on the leaves leaves and reflections on the figures’ faces all contribute to a light and bright mood. Additionally, the flushed faces and rosy cheeks on the figures are signs of heavy drinking, yet there are no senses of the dark side of alcohol or alcoholism in the painting. It remains light and lively. Today, the painting appears on a range of champagne bottles named after the Danish town where Kroyer and his artist friends gathered. 

Peter Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, 1888
Peter Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, 1888 via Classic Programmer Paintings via Wikipedia

Dionysian Drunkenness

Dionysus (or the Roman Bacchus) is the god of wine, wine-making, pleasure, and religious ecstasy. His female followers, the Maenads, were known for their ecstatic worship in a state of divine intoxication. He was a treasured subject in Baroque art. Nietzche contrasted the figures of Apollo and Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy as a duality between serene harmony and excessive, unbridled pleasure. This comparison establishes a contrast between the balanced refinement of the Renaissance and the emotional passion of the Baroque. 

The Triumph of Bacchus, Diego Velazquez, 1626-28

This piece shows Bacchus surrounded by common people with joyous expressions and flushed faces. Bacchus glances over to the viewer, inviting them to partake in the joyous celebration. The god stands out in the middle of the composition, appearing brighter and more radiant, not exhibiting the signs of drunkenness that his followers’ faces signal. 

The Triumph of Bacchus, Diego Velazquez, 1626-28
The Triumph of Bacchus, Diego Velazquez, 1626-28 via Fine Art America

A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term, Nicolas Poussin, 1632

This piece represents debauchery and beauty in a chaotic woodland party. The men and women dance around a carved bust of Pan, the god of the woods. The party is a Bacchic festival to encourage a successful harvest. This party also involves excessive drinking (as shown by the grapes) and sexual desire (as shown by their exposed skin). The Maenads in the painting are accompanied by a lustful satyr, a companion of Bacchus with an insatiable appetite for pleasure. 

A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term, Nicolas Poussin, 1632
A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term, Nicolas Poussin, 1632 via Arthive

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony van Dyck, 1626

This piece depicts Dionysus’ companion, Silenus, as an old drunken man who needs to be supported by satyrs to stay upright. His slumped pose indicates a sort of harmless, inoffensive inebriation and humor. He is concentrated on holding out his cup, anticipating his next drink. 

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony van Dyck, 1626
Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony van Dyck, 1626 via Fine Art America

In examining the perils of alcohol depicted in paintings, we uncover a recurring theme of human vulnerability and societal critique. These artworks not only highlight the destructive consequences of excessive drinking but also serve as timeless reminders of the complex relationship between pleasure and peril, urging viewers to reflect on the broader implications of alcohol consumption.


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