History of Modern France

The Third French Republic 1870-1940. Part 1

17 & 18 February 2021

Absinthe: The “Green Fairy” of 19th Century France

Pablo Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901

Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum 

Paris makes absinthe, but absinthe makes Paris

 

The era when alcohol played a dominant role within literature and the arts began in the mid- 19th century and continued throughout the 20th. Members of the working classes, as well artists, writers, scientists, whether rich or poor, had recourse to the use of drugs and alcohol, some stronger and more exotic than others. Few alcoholic beverages figure in literature, painting, and poetry as much as absinthe.

 

Artemisia absinthium, a rather bitter plant, was known and used in ancient times as medicine. Once a process was invented to use absinthe as the essence of a spirit in the mid-19th century, it became the favorite intoxicating beverage of all classes of French society.

 

Absinthe drinking involved a fascinating ritual that attracted Bourgeois and Bohemians alike every evening from 5 to 7 pm in Parisian cafés during what used to be called “the Green Hour”.

 

Poets like Musset, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine all fell into the arms of their new Muse. Absinthe soon earned a reputation for itself as a psychoactive drink and many artists turned to it in the hopes it would spark inspiration. As painters of modern life, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso, all represented the grandeur and, later on, the decadence of the “Green Fairy”.

 

It is no secret that alcoholic beverages, especially wine, has long been a component of French social life. But increasing alcohol abuse and absinthe addiction towards the end of 19th Century was the cause of many social problems.

 

During the course of the 19th century, Paris was the scene of several uprisings and social revolutions. As a result, the now-empowered bourgeois class feared that alcoholism and especially absinthism would lead to more upheavals. As a result, temperance movements were born and increasingly gained strength within French society.

 

The once fashionable and worshiped spirit had now become the favorite target of anti-alcohol movements, whose leaders insisted that it was a deadly poison and the cause of mental illness, especially among the working classes. But whereas in the US, prohibition led to the banning of all alcoholic drinks, in France, it was to be limited to absinthe.

 

Absinthe was banned in 1915 … but not forever.