PRINT April 1980

Picasso’s Absinth Glasses: Six Drinks to the End of an Era

Petite veille d’ivresse, sainte! quand ce ne serait que pour le masque dont tu nous as gratifié. Nous t’affirmons, methode! Nous n’oublions pas que tu as glorifié hier chacun de nos âges. Nous avons foi au poison. Nous savons donner notre vie toute entière tous les jours.
Voici le temps des

(Little drunken vigil, holy! if only because of the mask you have bestowed on us. We pronounce you, method! We shall not forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole life every day.
Now is the time of the
—Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations,
“Morning of Drunkenness,” 1875

AS A YOUNG MAN PICASSO used to insist that Rimbaud was his favorite Symbolist poet.2 After wine with François Villon and Bacchus, opium with Thomas de Quincey and Edgar Allan Poe, Rimbaud’s call for a “déreglèment de tous les sens” set a mythic precedent for avant-garde behavior. Charles Baudelaire sounded the modern call to inebriation with “De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.”3 Paul Verlaine was known to wait for poetic inspiration over a glass of absinth. Picasso’s fellow Spaniard Santiago Rusinol painted morphine addicts and published verbal celebrations of drugs.4 But Rimbaud’s impact was strongest because he offered himself up so totally to the myth that drinking enhances creativity.

As a subject for clinical study, alcoholism is a mid-19th-century phenomenon. The number of cafés and commercial brands of liquor burgeoned in response to the new pressures of daily life in the Industrial Age. Cafés were natural centers for politics, as Jean-François Raffaelli’s bronze sculpture Political Discussion shows.5 Drinking can break down proletarian solidarity, though, and in 1905 La Revue Socialiste published an article warning against the alienating effect of absinth in particular. Since alcoholism was considered to cause hereditary psychological defects, producing criminals and half-wits,6 it was feared that it endangered France’s future national strength. By 1910 a French National League Against Alcoholism was in full swing with poster campaigns in schools, and absinth was regularly featured in the posters’ roster of alcoholic evils.

Since antiquity the juice of the plant artemisia absinthium has been used as a medicinal cure for ills from stomach aches to malaria. Only in the mid-19th century did it become popular as a drink. As an addictive substance, it becomes dangerous when it induces epileptic seizures and unconscious states. The widely reported consequences presumably included violent crimes of which the absinth drinker had no memory.

A series of turn-of-the-century postcards, published by the French National League Against Alcoholism, chronicles the decline and fall of a worker who succumbs to absinth. This theme was corroborated in fact and fiction. One unfortunate example was the Swiss worker Jean Lanfray, who was allegedly under the influence when he shot his pregnant wife and two children in 1905. Later, supposedly rid of his addiction, Lanfray hung himself in prison before sentencing. This atrocity led, in 1908, to the prohibition of absinth in Switzerland.7 The Frenchman Charles Foley’s one-act play Absinth, 1913, sensationally confronted addiction in the aristocracy. After a night of absinth drinking, the baron awakes to discover blood and a bit of red hair on his handkerchief. It is left to the baron’s servants to tell him that he has strangled La Rouquine, an Apache dancer. As the curtain falls, the police are coming to remove the ruined aristocrat.

Absinth also surfaces in Gertrude Stein’s account of World War I in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

Another description of the battle of the Marne when we first came back to Paris was from Alfie Maurer. I was sitting said Alfie at a café and Paris was pale, if you know what I mean said Alfie, it was like a pale absinth.8

In those early years of World War I, everyone knew what the American painter Alfred Maurer meant. That absinth conveys the vacuum, peculiar light, weather, and vibrations of Paris in a state of imminent siege reflects its hallucinatory power as symbol for the end of an era. Four months after the Germans were stopped for the first time at the Marne, and the Great War still dragged on, a different kind of battle was resolved in the Chambre des Deputés. After a debate of eight years, the transport and sale of absinth was banned in France.

The topicality of Picasso’s “Absinth Glass” edition of bronzes stems from a tradition of urban realism in painting encouraged by Baudelaire’s Peintre de la vie moderne which urged artists to paint the new phenomena of boulevard life and café society. It was a tradition which began with Edouard Manet’s Absinth Drinker, a work rejected from the Salon of 1859, Edgar Degas’ Absinth (In a Café), 1876, Jean-François Raffaelli’s Absinth Drinkers, 1881, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At Grenelle, Absinth Drinker, 1886.9 In one of Picasso’s first treatments of the subject, Absinth Drinker, 1901, he used an accumulation of divisionist strokes and a conflation of near with far to shower his subject, who cups a hand to her ear as if to hear better as she stirs her lurid, green liqueur. It is a painting in which the tranquilizing effect of the absinth seems to transport the model almost beyond Picasso’s grasp.

In Picasso’s 1902–03 watercolor The Poet Cornuty (Absinth), an absinth still life separates the figures in the composition from the artist. Cross-eyed and with arms akimbo, the poet has been transported to farther shores than his female companion. Her glance suggests that she senses her exploitation as model. Of the two, she is the more likely survivor. Picasso’s friend, the poet Max Jacob, wrote a note on the back of the watercolor explaining that Cornuty, who was an ether addict like himself, died in obscurity, probably from malnutrition.10 The composition suggests a parable of survival and self-destruction.

The 1914 edition of “Absinth Glass” is endowed with a speckled éclat recalling Picasso’s divisionist style of 1901, and marks his continuing interest in absinth as a subject and issue related to bohemianism.

The edition’s creation coincided with far-off attacks from predictable adversaries and with close range controversy from within the avant-garde. On March 2, 1914, Picasso’s big painting The Family of Saltimbanques sold for 11,500 gold francs (his 1905 gouache Three Dutch Girls went for 5,200 francs; the watercolor of the Poet Cornuty sold for 400 francs),11 the next highest price for a painting in the Peau de l’Ours sale was 5,000 francs for Matisse’s Fruit Dish with Apples and Oranges. Picasso’s name was suddenly all over the conservative newspapers which were scandalized by such exorbitant prices for contemporary art, especially since the Family of Saltimbanques looked unfinished, its figures were Picasso’s friends impersonating carnival vagabonds, and the artist was a foreigner who had managed to bypass the Salons. Haut monde prices for bohemian subjects were too much for the bourgeois press.

This succès de scandale followed hard upon a slap in the face from the avant-garde. In the November 1913 issue of the little magazine Les Soirées de Paris, its new editor, Guillaume Apollinaire, published photographs of Picasso’s previously unexhibited Guitar and Violin wall constructions. After the November issue, all but one of the magazine’s 14 subscribers cancelled their subscriptions. Evidently Picasso’s open-form musical instruments with their allusions to flayed anatomies were too much for the literary cognoscenti. In reaction to the controversies, Picasso and his dealer, Kahnweiler, planned the “Absinth Glass,” an edition of six pieces in bronze. Each Absinth Glass was intended as a little still life extract, alienated from its functional context. The sculptures were not only meant to paraphrase the artist’s earlier styles. Their celebration of the endangered absinth was an emblem of his youth and of a whole era’s excess—little bombs thrown in the face of high seriousness.

Picasso, striving for transformation in sculpture’s static body, grasps acrobatic structure in the “Absinth Glass” edition. Each piece’s lower half is stable, with base and stem on a central axis to allow for the first, drastic opening at the knop. This conventionally solid section is hollowed out into a basin and umbrella that, like an out of season fountain, provides for the flow of water, now absent, and air. Each Glass’ upper half revolves around a second axis to accommodate the gaping, open space of the bowl and the crossing of a horizontal liquid level with its vertical edge. Between these two sides—curved, open left (sinister) and angular, planar right (dexter)—Picasso balanced a real, silver strainer. If the Absinth Glass were functional, one would pour water through this strainer to dissolve the sugar cube and sweeten the liqueur’s natural bitterness.

The actual strainer and painted bronze sugar cube are insouciant, crowning touches; like a Wallenda high wire routine, they’re brilliant but dumb, achieved at a certain cost but seemingly effortless. The six silver strainers and imitation cubes decor ate each Glass, giving them a specific identity. Decked out, they recall Degas’s Little Dancer, 1880, with her bronze body, real tutu and silk hair ribbon. The “Absinth Glass” series compacts questions of sculptural realism into overlapping, alcoholic levels.12 Their process is alchemistic in that the original wax is lost to the bronze casts that Picasso overpainted. This denies bronze’s traditional richness and affirms his own brand of spectacle, poor but rich like his circus friends. The double identity of each Absinth Glass lets it depict reflection and transparency while resembling opaque ceramics.

When, in 1912, Picasso wanted to see what open form looked like, he constructed the relief Guitars of the Les Soirées de Paris controversy. When, in 1914, he wanted to see how comic still life felt, he modeled an Absinth Glass in wax. The finished bronzes retain the actuality of Picasso’s finger marks. Although sculpted in the round, they have the quality of relief: each Glass has a back less interesting than its front, and a sacred right side radically different from its profane left.

Picasso’s fascination with the glasses intensified during the spring of 1914 in a series of small oils.13 Through shifting axes, curved and angular facets, stippling and hatching, Picasso played with new alternatives. He reworked the simple forms of Analytical Cubism.

In the black-and-white Absinth Glass Picasso strikes an absolutist, life over death stance. Turning it around, this piece alternately sticks out its tongue and makes a sign of the cross towards death. (Picasso’s father died a year before in May 1913.) In the spring or summer of 1914 Picasso painted a still life with glass, guitar, newspaper, and skull.14 This painting belongs to the 17th-century Dutch tradition of memento mori still lifes which through imagery popular in Spain, skulls and tipped over glasses, reflect on life’s transience. Since absinth is ultimately fatal, all of Picasso’s Glasses qualify as sculptural memento mori. Transfixed by its own symbology of life’s extremes, the black-and-white Glass allows for the play of natural shadows on its tongue and orifice. In the edition’s other pieces, Picasso materialized light sources and symbolism as he would do in Goat Skull and Bottle where real nails stand for candlelight while suggesting allusions, as in the “Absinth Glass’” right sides, to the Crucifixion.15

Chafing against traditional limitations in sculptural materials, vantage points, and possible meanings, Picasso partially coated one Glass with sand. He gave the sanded Glass a transparent skin of paint on the bottom and clogged up the top with texture. With its tangible analogy to stippling and light particles, sand muffles transparency and buries meaning under a metaphoric layer of time. (The sanded Glass is the only one Picasso kept for himself.) It is a starting point for the artist’s “Sand Reliefs” of 1930 in which he covered ephemeral, found objects with sand from the beach at Juan-les-Pins. (Picasso also kept these reliefs.)

Picasso’s desire to animate the Cubist glass led him to paint the interior surface of a small Glass he made in sheet metal.16 Textured paint redeems the voided space created by the sheet metal. Without its internal texture, the sheet metal Glass would be tantamount to a punk flashing of knives around a dead issue. But in 1919, open form was a total issue on every front. Picasso’s comic paradoxes equal Apollinaire’s book of poems Alcools, and one line in particular from “Rhénanes”: “Mon verre s’est brisé comme un éclat de rire” (My glass has shattered like a burst of laughter).17 The book Alcools, for which Picasso did the frontispiece, was printed by April 20, 1913, about two weeks before the death of his father. In retrospect, the two events may have flowed together a year later when Picasso made the macabre “Absinth Glass” series.

One Glass, painted all black except for stippling on the edges and interior, is in a twilight zone. It takes denial of its own form to the extreme that it risks not being there except in flashes. Its blackness parallels the underside of Max Jacob’s religious conversion in 1909 and the necessary confrontation with evil in his novel Saint Matorel of the same year:

Ce Satan! Ah! mes enfants, quel génie! C’est effrayant, je n’avais jamais vu ça! II tient à me faire savoir qu’il connait Willy, le Pernod sucre, et les yeux pochés. (That Satan! Oh children, what a genius! It’s appalling, I’ve never seen the like! He tries to let me know he’s familiar with Willy, Pernod with sugar, and poached eyes.)18

Picasso’s black Absinth Glass recalls the satanic lull of absinth taking effect, beginning to light up the body. Black conveys the vacuum produced by absinth, and stippled colors conjure up its magic, tranquilizing effect. The verbal equivalent for Picasso’s twinkling color is la fée verte, green fairy—a common, French phrase for absinth.

Blue-and-yellow dots do not mix on the colored versions since the green of absinth is supposed to coalesce in the spectator’s eye rather than on the sculpture. In this sense the sculptures are neo-impressionist, yet the use of black and primaries also has a decorative, nonrepresentational effect. The black swirl on the Museum of Modern Art’s version in New York makes naturalistic sense seen from the left. At this angle it is one of those billowing shadows Picasso developed in the spring 1914 paintings of glasses. Head on, the same swirl has an abstract, calligraphic quality that recalls the decorative black mottoes on Islamic ceramics. These mottoes were often copied by illiterate potters until the lettering lost its sense and retained only the vague charisma of the word in arabesque. This is the case in a 15th-century Hispano-Moresque candlestick that the New York Glass resembles. After the sensation of the 1910 exhibit of Islamic art in Munich, deluxe editions and scholarly articles on Islamic ceramics began appearing in France.19 Picasso saw Hispano-Moresque ceramics in Barcelona and Paris, and he applied novel images to these traditional forms in his post World War II ceramics at Vallauris. Already in the Family of Saltimbanques he shows interest in traditional ceramics and regional costumes. In a 1905 still life he focused on Spanish glass and ceramics, notably the two-spouted Spanish porron for wine.20 Apollinaire wrote of Picasso in 1905 that “He has seen himself ethically more of a Latin, rhythmically more an Arab.”21 This distinction adds to the controversy in the “Absinth Glass” series. Not only does it advocate the legality of an endangered liqueur, but it does so in the then fashionable vocabulary of Islam, a religion that frowns on any alcoholic consumption.

The Philadelphia Museum version contains a duality of color that is at once naturalistic and symbolically forbidding. While its red-orange stippling summons up green in the spectator’s eye, the sugar-cube black suggests Spanish extremes of sol y sombra. The Philadelphia version’s black cross recalls the Satanic role of absinth for Max Jacob, and its black tongue hints at a pestilence far worse than absinth could produce.

In another version of the Absinth Glass Picasso achieves a decorative synthesis of the New York and Philadelphia versions. Black fulfills the double function of shadow and border, and the back of this piece is especially effective with darts of black that show Picasso treating paint like a tailored fabric. The red dots hit the eye not only as green but as red lipstick and recall Picasso’s friendship with couturier Paul Poiret who had a major impact on the Islamic Revival through his Arabian soirées, like the “1002nd Night” that Picasso and company attended. The designer’s sequined costumes for the 1913 revue Le Minaret may have prompted Picasso to introduce sequins into one spring 1914 still-life painting.22

Along with sand and stippling, sequins are emblematic of Picasso’s theatricality. They are ready-made analogies for light that characterize the decorative style of 1914 which Alfred Barr termed “Rococo” Cubism.23 Through their paradoxical humor and religious imagery, the left and right sides of the “Absinth Glass” series anticipate the black-and-white duality of Picasso’s Harlequin, 1915. The sculptures also furnish a link between the Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, and the Three Musicians, 1921. All these works revolve around Picasso’s friendships with Apollinaire and Jacob.24

The “Absinth Glass” initiates the onslaught of roles that Picasso played, often simultaneously, from his core. Each Glass emerges as a complex and contradictory entity with its own personal history. The edition’s very existence as sculpture advocates absinth’s right to exist in 1914. By painting each sculpture differently, Picasso celebrates the individual’s freedom of choice in matters of alcoholic consumption. The sculptures’ open form suggests Picasso’s open, political attitude about drug control. Legal restrictions on drugs repressed only the symptoms of workers’ problems that were going to explode regardless. There is an element of prophecy in Picasso’s “Absinth Glass” and an attempt to control avant-garde imagery in the edition’s small size and number.

Discussing Apollinaire’s Alcools in the May 15, 1914, issue of Les Soirées de Paris, Jean Cérusse used a term that also applies to the “Absinth Glass” Cérusse claimed that Apollinaire’s poetry could not be “fantaisiste,” because it is grounded in realism.25 Cérusse suggested instead “surnaturel,” a term that Apollinaire changed to “surréal” in the 1917 program for his drama Les Mamelles de Tiresias. “Surnaturel” specifies the historical place of the “Absinth Glass,” for it expresses the edition’s contemporary and visionary superimpositions. The sculptures’ possibility for transformation, involving paradoxes of material, decoration, and fashion, came to fruition when in 1936 one of the Glasses was on view at the Galerie Charles Ratton in a show of Surrealist objects.26 Picasso’s “Absinth Glass” is Surrealist sculpture in an early conscious formulation and decorative art in six, hedonistic gasps.

Brooks Adams is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts. He helped organize the upcoming exhibition “Hair” at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.



*This is an expanded version of a two-week paper written at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, in March 1979. I would like to thank Theodore Reff, Robert Rosenblum, Gert Schiff and Edward Sullivan for their suggestions and insights about Picasso.

1. Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations and Other Prose Poems, trans. by Louise Varèse, New York, 1957, p. 43.

2. Anthony Blunt and Phoebe Pool, Picasso, The Formative Years, A Study of his Sources, London, 1962, p. 17.

3. Centre de Création Industrielle, Cafés, Bistrots et Compagnie, Paris, 1977, p. 24 for Baudelaire quote and p. 27, no 4 for Verlaine.

4. Blunt and Pool, op. cit., nos. 44–45. See also Marilyn McCully, El Ouatre Gats, Art in Barcelona around 1900, Princeton 1978, pp. 124–129.

5. Arsène Alexandre, Jean-François Raffaelli, Peintre, Graveur et Sculpteur, Paris, 1909, p. 170.

6. M. Magnan and A. Fillassier, “Alcoholism and Degeneracy, Statistics from the Central Office for the Management of the Insane of Paris and the Department of the Seine from 1867 to 1912,” International Eugenics Congress, London, 1912, p. 377.

7. Eugène Blocher, 50 Ans d’Interdiction de l’Absinthe, Basel, 1958.

8. Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. by Carl Van Vechten, New York, 1962, p. 142.

9. For Raffaelli’s Absinth Drinkers, see Georges Lecomte, Raflaelli, Paris, 1927, pl. 7. For recent discussion of Toulouse-Lautrec’s At Grenelle, see Charles F. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Chicago, 1979, p. 106.

10. Paris, Palais Galliera, Collection Andre Lefèvre, Tableaux Modernes, Estampes Originales, 29 Nov. 1966, no. 37 for the back of the watercolor with Jacob’s long note no County.

11. Paris, Hotel Drouot, Collection de la “Peau de l’Ours,” 2 March 1914. The Frick Art Reference Library’s copy is marked with prices and buyers.

12. For analogies with Marcel Duchamp and Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture, see Werner Spies, Sculpture by Picasso with a Catalogue of the Works, New York, 1972, pp. 48–51. Ron Johnson, The Early Sculpture of Picasso 1901–1914, New York, 1976, pp. 134–135 discusses the sculpture as a double image of an absinth drinker’s head.

13. Pierre Dais and Joan Rosselet, Le Cubisme de Picasso, Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre 1907–1916, Neuchâtel, 1979, nos. 720–736.

14. Ibid., no. 739.

15. William Rubin, Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972, pp. 95 and 177.

16. Dais and Rosselet, op.cit., no. 752.

17. Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools, trans. by Anne Hyde Greet, Berkeley, 1965, p. 143.

18. Max Jacob, Saint Matorel, Paris, 1936, p. 18.

19. Henri Riviére, La Céramique darts l’ Art Musulman, pref. by Gaston Migeon, 4 Vols., Paris, 1913.

20. Pierre Dais and Georges Boudaille, Picasso, The Blue and Rose Periods, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Greenwich, 1966, no. XV. 13.

21. Guillaume Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews 1902–1918, ed. by Leroy C. Breunig and trans. by Susan Suleiman, New York, 1972, p. 16.

22. Dais and Rosselet, op.cit., no. 736. See Palmer White, Poiret, New York, 1973, p 105.

23. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Picasso, Fifty Years of His Art, New York, 1974, p. 90.

24. Theodore Reff, “Harlequins. Saltimbanques. Clowns and Fools,” Artforum Vol. 10, no. 2, October 1971, pp. 42–43: “Themes of Love and Death in Picasso’s Early Work,” in Picasso in Retrospect, New York, 1973, pp. 11–48.

25. Les Soirées de Paris, 15 May 1914, p. 248.

26. For installation shots of the Charles Ratton exhibit, see Dawn Ardes, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, London, 1978, p. 322