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The Green Fairy in Paintings

Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883)

In 1859 Manet produced the first great absinthe painting. Entitled "The Absinthe Drinker" it caused a scandal at the 1859 Salon, where the selection committee refused to hang it. With cafe society being hijacked by absinthe, this portrait of a swaggering, dandy drunkard (an actual friend of Manet) offended the establishment. They were used to seeing drunks depicted as pitiful, downtrodden wretches, and this man's pride and vitality scared them. The committee attacked the painting for its 'vulgar realism'. And it was not isolated criticism. As Manet wrote in a letter to the poet Baudelaire; "Insults are pouring down on me as thick as hail".

Édouard Manet
The Absinthe Drinker (1858–59)

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Degas' famous "L'Absinthe" (1876) is the definitive depiction of the drink. It shows a man and woman sitting in a café - faces vacant, eyes glazed over. Under its original title, A Sketch Of A French Café, the painting was not well received. But when it was exhibited in the Grafton Gallery under its new title - L'Absinthe - the painting enjoyed huge controversy, igniting a diplomatic incident that soured Anglo-French relations.

Edgar Degas
L'Absinthe" (1876)

Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890)

He suffered from hereditary mental illness for most of his life, but such is the drink's reputation that it always seems to be blamed for his self-abusive behaviour. But the extent of his absinthe intake, and its influence on his work and behaviour is unknown. Most scholars agree that he was an avid drinker, addicted to a number of substances, even paint thinner. He may also have been a victim of poisoning from digitalis, which at the time was a common treatment for epilepsy. This might account for the trademark halo effect in his depiction of light sources (digitalis can cause some users to become ultra-sensitive to light). The psychosis he is known to have experienced is more consistent with acute alcoholism than "absinthism".

Vincent van Gogh
Still Life with Absinthe (1887)