The History of Absinthe; Henri’s Cane and Van Gogh’s Ear

by James on June 1, 2009

The history of absinthe is very much the story of famous absinthe drinkers. Today we will take a look back at two of them, Henri and Vincent, two wild figures who grace the pages of the absinthe history books like no others. This is the story of a walking cane and the mystery of an chopped ear!

Henri’s Walking Cane

Henri Tolouse Lautrec was an artist, an aristocrat, and was known as the Tripod by the “ladies of ill repute” that he painted and also paid, for services rendered. This may have been on account of his famous walking cane, but there is a more scurrilous allegation, which we’ll leave to the imagination, that is in keeping with the bawdy Parisian arena that he loved and recorded in paint.

Henri ’s collection of art chronicles the life of belle époque absinthe soaked Montmarte. Another important legacy he left, and on display at the Musuem dedicated to him, a cane with a hidden reservoir for hiding his beloved absinthe. Lautrec drank absinthe to excess and he particularly loved absinthe cocktails, his favourite being the earth trembler consisting of absinthe and cognac, which keeps the absinthe green. Lautrec even invented several cocktails like the Maiden’s Blush; an unholy alliance of absinthe, red wine, champagne and bitters.

“his paintings were almost entirely painted in absinthe” claimed his contemporary Gustav Moreau. Henri’s haunts were the dance halls and cabaret shows where sexual shenanigans and absinthe were de rigueur. This was the great age of Moulin Rouge a spectacular modern entertainment palace for all and the subject of a famous poster by Tolouse Lautrec. The film, Moulin Rouge, which appeared in 2001 with Kylie Minogue, as the Green Fairy popping out of the absinthe bottle, gives a perspective on the era via exuberance, if not historical accuracy. It is perhaps a surreal but enticing view of Lautrec’s world seen through a glass of absinthe, spiced up with a silly story line and modern music for the sake of box office receipts.

Prostitutes, drinking and bizarre behavior punctuated Henri’s life, he even had a tame bird that he taught to drink absinthe that he claimed “developed a taste for the stuff”. These inebriated doings annoyed his father the Comte (Count) de Toulouse Lautrec who famously remarked, “Why doesn’t he go to England? They scarcely notice the drunks there”

His association with another absinthe drunk, the ultra bizarre Alfred Jarry, can hardly have delighted Henri’s papa. Lautrec painted the set of Jarry’s notorious play Ubu Roi, a play so shocking that it caused riots in the theatre and was shut down after three performances! Ubu Roi may be largely forgotten but Henri has left a legacy of art that both features absinthe, as in the portrait of his friend Vincent van Gogh, and captures the very essence of abinthe’s finest hour amongst the whores and high life of a lost Paris, that lost “City of absinthe and unbelief”.

Lautrec’s friend Vincent van Gogh lost an ear to the Green Fairy, or so we are led to believe.

Van Gogh’s Ear

Vincent van Gogh, according to popular 21st bar stool philosophers, cut off his ear whilst under the influence of absinthe. Like much else about the Green Fairy this is not quite the case - she has been blamed for among things anarchism, spontaneous self-combustion and cowardice! Did she really cut off vah Gogh’s ear?

It seems not surprising that the period of van Gogh’s greatest artistic achievements are also the time of his absinthe drinking. Cezanne said of van Gogh: “Sir, you paint like a madman” The image of van Gogh, maniacally thrusting a brush onto an outsized canvass and indulging in the dementia of excitement, shouting and waving his arms was a common site. Van Gogh oscillated between highs and lows what in later years would have been diagnosed as manic depression.

This man was not a decadent like Dowson, a bon viveur like his friend Lautrec who introduced him to absinthe, this was a troubled, lonely, and tortured soul - a failed preacher. Shortly before Christmas 1888 van Gogh sliced off a part of his ear and presented it to a prostitute called Rachel. This is the official line - however, the involvement of another artist, Gauguin, who is mysteriously absent from the police reports of the time but later recalls van Gogh approaching him a park with a razor on the same day is suspect. The fact that the high tempered Gaugin left town immediately after the incident and had previously had a huge absinthe drenched row with van Gogh creates further doubt. Did the influence of the Green Fairy slice off van Gogh’s ear or was it Gaugin’s fencing sword at the height of another drunken rage?

There is no argument that absinthe, a highly alcoholic drink, makes you drunk when consumed to excess. Drunks tend to argue and fight, don’t they? Whatever the cause, van Gogh was clearly unbalanced - this is evinced by his presentation of the piece of ear to poor old Rachel amongst other equally bizarre actions at this time.

Art critics of the post absinthe period have tended to know the drink only by reputation built by the hysterical and unscientific propaganda of the abolitionist. Absinthe was a fascinating, and convenient, explanation of both the genius and insanity of one of the world’s greatest artists. A later episode in which van Gogh tried to eat paint has even been latterly interpreted as an absinthe induced mania. All very well, but a madman who drinks absinthe is quite different from an absinthe drinker who becomes mad and van Gogh was the latter. He was a morose and troubled drinker of that time and might have well have chosen Campari and soda if he’d had a later incarnation, although perhaps the famous yellow hue of his painting may have been replaced by a garish red? Who can tell, but to blame absinthe for his lunacy is unfair and on balance wrong. In short, the Green Fairy may be the source of inspiration but not in our opinion of self-mutilation.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Foster 06.20.09 at 2:57 pm

the ultra bizarre Alfred Jarry……I think Jarry used to drink absinthe neat? He must have been mad :-)

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