I originally wrote this art-historical essay about The Absinthe Drinkers by Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850-1924) for another project entirely separate from my author life. I include it now as context and background material to my Victorian erotic romance stories. Book 6 of my Harwell Heirs series, Their Noble Deceit, will have a mention of absinthe drinking by heroes Norrington and Ravensburgh.
And now for the essay.
Observe The Absinthe Drinkers
Observe The Absinthe Drinkers (1881) by Jean-François Raffaëlli. Two men sit at a table in the empty terrace of a bar, unspeaking, each lost in his own thoughts, two glasses of the green-yellow liqueur on the table between them. One glass, that of the man leaning on the table, his face in his hands, is half-empty. The other, belonging to the man who turns towards the viewer yet looks down at his hands, is full. Above them a fading painted cluster of grapes cheerily calls out “Vins de Bourgogne”. On the left, a real grape vine, withered, barren. The men wear dark coats. Perhaps it is winter.
If we gaze further into the painting we see the men are ragged, their top hats and black coats only a pretense towards respectability. This is not a Paris bar; no, instead it is a bar in the banlieue, the outskirts. And if we know anything about the place of the painting in art history, we know that it was exhibited in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881 under the title Les déclassés – the degraded, the outsiders. Indeed the painting is of two poor men, disillusioned men, solitary in their companionship, drinking the most alcoholic drink of their era, the alcoholic drink preferred by the poor, the disenfranchised.
By 1881, absinthe had become the favored drink of the working class in France, favored because it was cheaper than wine. From the late 1850s until the mid-1870s, a massive infection of the pest phylloxera in the vineyards of France almost destroyed the wine industry. The price of wine sky-rocketed making the drink available only to the rich. The poor, ever in need of inebriation, sought solace elsewhere. Absinthe, a liqueur once favored by the wealthy, had changed its alcohol base from wine to grain alcohol, making it cheaper by the glass. By the late 1870s, absinthe had surpassed wine as the drink of choice for the working class and continued as such into the 20th century. It was this association that gave the liquor its lower-class status, the beverage of alcoholics, of prostitutes, of artists, of the working class. The beverage of the déclassés.
The very same class that had revolted and for one brief shining moment in the spring of 1871, had ruled France during the Paris Commune. Absinthe, then, particularly strong, much stronger than wine, was seen as politically dangerous as well. In short, by the end of the 19th century in France, absinthe was perceived as the drink of revolutionaries.
And revolutionaries must be stopped.
The French wine industry seized upon this notion, that absinthe was dangerous, bad for the country. Absinthe, so they said, led one easily into alcoholism, into degeneration, quickly too, as it contained a particular substance that led to hallucinations. In an ironic association with temperance movements, the French wine industry helped ban the liquor throughout the world by the early 20th century. The ban lasted until the 21st century when the notion of the drink rousing revolutionaries into a hallucinogenic frenzy was utterly discredited.
Observe The Absinthe Drinkers. Revolutionaries imbibing under the fading sign of their country’s once great industry, enjoying a respite before resuming the fight.
Jean-François Raffaëlli (French 1850–1924), “The Absinthe Drinkers”, 1881. Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 × 42 1/2 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund, Jay D. and Clare C. McEvoy Endowment Fund, Tribute Funds, friends of lan White Endowment Fund, Unrestricted Art Acquisition Endowment Income Fund, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund, and the Yvonne Cappeller Trust, 2010.16. Credit line courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
Image from Wikimedia Commons. Artwork in the public domain. Reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art in the public domain.
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