The Green Fairy
Belle Époque bacchants, including some of the late 19th century’s greatest artists and writers, dubbed absinthe the Green Fairy (la fée verte). Personified as a winged, emerald-skinned nude, the intensely herbal elixir was their muse—and sometimes a femme fatale. By 1914 absinthe was widely banned, but it has recently been legalized in Europe and the U.S., so it’s again easy to succumb to the Green Fairy’s temptations. If, that is, you dare.
The Green Fairy’s cachet has partly to do with her former outlaw status: For most of the 20th century, absinthe was illegal in the United States and much of Western Europe. The bans enacted in the years leading up to World War I (lifted only during the past decade) were based on the conviction that absinthe was a particularly poisonous liquor. Research by Dr. Valentin Magnan, a leader of the French anti-absinthe crusade, purported to show that heavy absinthe drinkers developed a syndrome he called absinthism, which was characterized by debilitating hallucinatory delirium. Magnan identified one of absinthe’s ingredients as the culprit: wormwood, specifically Artemesia absinthium (grand wormwood), from which absinthe takes its name. Scholarship now suggests, however, that anti-absinthe fervor was a moral panic goaded by temperance activists and, in France, by the wine industry, whose customer base had diminished as absinthe gained popularity. Recent scientific research shows that essence of wormwood—and its primary chemical constituent, thujone—is highly unlikely to have induced absinthism. If the questionable syndrome did exist, it was probably caused by heavy metals and dyestuffs employed in distilling and coloring the cheap absinthes that flooded European markets in the late 19th century.
The bitter herb called grand wormwood, which has been used in medicinal concoctions since ancient Egypt, is just one of the botanicals in absinthe. Other key ingredients include anise and fennel; they lend the liquor its licorice-like taste. In well-made absinthes, the botanicals are macerated (i.e., soaked) in distilled spirit, giving the Green Fairy her brilliant emerald complexion. The essential herbal oils suspended in absinthe also turn that complexion pale and milky when absinthe is prepared for drinking via the traditional drip method: When water is slowly added to absinthe, the insoluble oils create a whitish, opalescent emulsion that floats up from the bottom of the glass, gradually clouding the entire drink. This pretty effect—which likewise occurs when water is added to other anise-flavored spirits like Greek ouzo, Turkish raki, French pastis and the several grand-wormwood-free “absinthe substitutes” (Pernod, Herbsaint, etc.) that came onto the market when genuine absinthe was banned—is called the louche (from the French word for “squinty-eyed”). It’s a marker of the low esteem into which absinthe drinkers sank that the word louche came to mean “disreputable” in both French and English.
The cult of the Green Fairy, like any religion, has its defining ritual. Although absinthe was introduced (as a medicinal tonic) in the late 1700s, it didn’t become widely popular until the second half of the 19th century, when a ceremony for its preparation developed. This “French method” involves pouring about an ounce of absinthe into a stemmed glass with a small reservoir at the bottom; a slotted absinthe “spoon” (often flat and trowel-shaped) is set atop the glass and a cube of sugar placed on it. Ice water is slowly poured onto the sugar, the sweetened water dripping into the absinthe beneath. Bistros where absinthe drinkers gathered were typically outfitted with absinthe fountains—elegant glass jars with little spigots for controlling the flow of water into the drink. Today’s worshippers have revived the ritual (antique and reproduction absinthe accoutrements are readily available online), but you don’t need all the apparatus to enjoy an absinthe drip cocktail—just a wineglass, a small sieve to hold the sugar (if desired) and ice-cold water. Because it’s so high in alcohol (sometimes up to 150 proof), absinthe must be diluted to be palatable. Water also releases the herbal aromas and flavors.
Why is there so much great Belle Époque poster art advertising absinthe? Simple historical confluence: The period when large-format color-lithograph advertising posters came into widespread use was the same in which absinthe’s popularity boomed and many brands competed for drinkers’ loyalty. Enemies of absinthe deployed posters too. One depicts a half-naked Green Fairy being burned at the stake! In 1896 Belgian graphic artist Henri Privat-Livemont created probably the best-known absinthe poster—a true art nouveau masterpiece—for the Robette brand. In it a Medusa-coiffed siren wearing a see-through drape raises a huge glass of absinthe as if it were a holy libation. (Enduringly popular, the image is available in reproduction from the Target website for $14.99.) Privat-Livemont was a follower of Czech painter Alphonse Mucha, who along with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec virtually invented the artful advertising poster. Curiously, neither seems to have designed one for absinthe, although Toulouse-Lautrec was a committed debauchee devoted to the Green Fairy (he died at 36 of complications of alcoholism and syphilis). He is even credited with inventing a cocktail, called the earthquake, that mixes equal parts cognac and absinthe—a combo sure to leave you shaking.
Though Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec designed no absinthe posters, he did create several artworks depicting absinthe drinkers, including an exquisite 1887 pastel portrait of his friend Vincent van Gogh sitting at a café table, a glass of absinthe before him. Many a 19th- and early-20th-century artist took absinthe as a subject: Van Gogh—whose suicidal madness may have been exacerbated by heavy absinthe drinking—painted Still Life With Absinthe (1887), and the tabletops of his Night Café (1888) have an eerie Green Fairy–like glow.
Commercial poster art of necessity celebrates absinthe’s virtues. An 1896 poster for Cusenier’s Oxygénée brand shows then-famous French comic actor Joseph-François Dailly pouring himself an absinthe drip while uttering the slogan C’est ma santé (“This is my health”). Ironically, Dailly died the following year. In contrast to such jollity, fine-art depictions of absinthe imbibing—from Édouard Manet’s Absinthe Drinker (1859) through the paintings and sketches of absinthe tipplers Pablo Picasso made four decades later—emphasize the habit’s melancholic aspect. Of such portrayals, Edgar Degas’s painting L’Absinthe (1876) may be the most forlorn. Degas’s absinthe drinker is an apparently down-on-her-luck young woman whose eyes stare inconsolably into the void.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ruined his health by avidly participating in the Parisian demimonde he documented in his posters and other artworks, and he was hardly the only 19th-century artist brought low by such passionately reckless behavior as absinthe overindulgence. Decades earlier, poet Charles Baudelaire had also celebrated the excesses of modern urban existence. His death, in 1867 at age 46, resulted from his addictions to laudanum (an opium tincture) and absinthe. The depredation absinthe wrought on the minds and bodies of creative people is central to the Green Fairy’s mythos: As Francophile English decadent poet Ernest Dowson wrote, “Whiskey and beer are for fools; absinthe for poets.” (Dowson was 32 when he died in 1900.) One writer associated in the popular imagination with absinthe, however, drank relatively little of it. Arthur Rimbaud’s period of dissipation, which included hashish smoking as well as absinthe drinking, occurred during the then-teenage poet’s brief, tempestuous love affair with older symbolist poet and incorrigible absinthe drunk Paul Verlaine. Whether the Green Fairy inspired the hallucinatory imagery of Rimbaud’s verse is a matter of speculation. Though drunkenness is a frequent trope in his prose poems, Rimbaud nowhere directly references absinthe.
Absinthe was the marijuana (or perhaps the LSD) of its day. Nineteenth-century creative types used it to explore consciousness. That was likely the motive behind Arthur Rimbaud’s youthful dalliance with the Green Fairy. (At 20, he gave up drunkenness—and literature—for more literal explorations, becoming a soldier and then a trader in Indonesia, Cyprus, Yemen and Ethiopia.) Just how absinthe affects consciousness, though, is debatable. Many present-day advocates assert that an absinthe high isn’t appreciably different from that of other alcoholic beverages. Others say it confers a peculiar mental clarity that assists artistic endeavor, but that claim is modest compared to the testimony of some Belle Époque admirers. Writer Oscar Wilde identified three stages in the absinthe experience: “The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.” Wilde indulged occasionally; Rimbaud’s lover Paul Verlaine, who spent most of his adult life besotted by absinthe, estimated its impact differently. In his Confessions (1895), he called absinthe “the source of folly and crime, of idiocy and shame.”