Don’t get us wrong. We certainly aren’t advocating introducing—or in this case, reintroducing—another intoxicating substance into the culture, but we thought this might be of interest to those of you interested in studying the history of hedonistic pursuits. Have any of us tried it? Well… (Truth is, real absinthe isn’t that accessible in the U.S., and not quite legal in most places last time we checked, although that might have changed.)
Absinthe: How the Green Fairy became literature’s drink
Absinthe, a green liquor known for its hallucinogenic effects and popular with legendary authors and artists, was banned for most of the past century. (Goran Heckler/Alamy)
Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker (1859) marked the beginning of the absinthe age. It was rejected from the Paris Salon, with only Delacroix voting in favour of it. (Alamy)
Mixology and morality
Absinthe inspired mixed feelings among the artists and writers who depicted it. Edgar Degas’ Glass of Absinthe shows a woman made sullen by the drink. (The Art Archive/Alamy)
Australian pop star Kylie Minogue played absinthe’s personification, the Green Fairy, in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, set at the turn of the 20th Century. (20th Century Fox)
What’s old is new
Luhrmann’s take on the Green Fairy had its root in Albert Maignan’s 1895 painting Green Muse, which also personified absinthe as a spritely young woman. (Wikimedia Commons)
Demon in a bottle
Vincent Van Gogh painted Still Life With Absinthe in 1887. Some think the drink drove him to cut off his ear and inspired the vivid greens in his work. (Wikimedia Commons)
Pablo Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker built off Degas’ painting. The hallucinations and distortions attributed to the drink are expressed in the subject’s contorted body. (Corbis)
The drink was often prepared in a fountain – or poured over sugar cubes suspended above a cup on a spoon – to dilute its bitter taste. (Wikimedia Commons)
Absinthe’s danger fuels its ongoing cultural resonance. Frank Ocean’s Pyramids music video showed the drink still has hallucinogenic power in the 21st Century. (Def Jam)
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Arthur Rimbaud called absinthe the “sagebrush of the glaciers” because a key ingredient, the bitter-tasting herb Artemisia absinthium or wormwood, is plentiful in the icy Val-de-Travers region of Switzerland. That is where the legendary aromatic drink that came to symbolise decadence was invented in the late 18th Century. It’s hard to overstate absinthe’s cultural impact – or imagine a contemporary equivalent.
The spirit was a muse extraordinaire from 1859, when Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker shocked the annual Salon de Paris, to 1914, when Pablo Picasso created his painted bronze sculpture, The Glass of Absinthe. During the Belle Époque, the Green Fairy – nicknamed after its distinctive colour – was the drink of choice for so many writers and artists in Paris that five o’clock was known as the Green Hour, a happy hour when cafes filled with drinkers sitting with glasses of the verdant liquor. Absinthe solidified or destroyed friendships, and created visions and dream-like states that filtered into artistic work. It shaped Symbolism, Surrealism, Modernism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Dozens of artists took as their subjects absinthe drinkers and the ritual paraphernalia: a glass, slotted spoon, sugar cubes – sugar softened the bitter bite of cheaper brands – and fountains dripping cold water to dilute the liquor.