Great Paintings: The Absinthe Drinker by Léon Spilliaert

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries represented an artistic explosion in the Western world. As modernization and industrialization increased, dozens of artistic movements emerged in response to the rapidly changing social and economic conditions. Symbolism was one of these movements.

In my opinion, Symbolism was a reaction against the increasing industrialization and standardization of the modern world. The Realist movement celebrated these aspects of modern life, and Realist painters devoted themselves to capturing the world in all it’s gritty disarray. The Symbolists, however, felt that artists should seek a higher truth in their work. Like the Romantics before them, Symbolists turned toward an emotionally rich and psychologically complex visual lexicon. However, while the Romantics often accomplished this through painting the natural world, Symbolists pursued a more abstract approach. As the name suggests, Symbolist artists used a symbolic language to convey an internal world of thoughts and emotions.

The Absinthe Drinker
Source: King Baudouin Foundation

Belgian painter Léon Spilliaert was one of the great Symbolist painters, and The Absinthe Drinker is one of his most haunting pieces. The piece depicts a woman, who is dressed in black, gazing out at the viewer with an expression of deep pain and terror. Spilliaert uses a loose, painterly style to depict her, giving the impression of hurry and frenzy. Spilliaert, who is known for his dark and melancholy paintings, chooses to focus here on the woman’s internal struggle. Her compressed lips and widened eyes convey horror, and the viewer receives the impression that she is trapped within her own mind, waging a battle against her psychological demons.

I read quite a bit about absinthe in preparation to write about this painting, and I learned that absinthe reached the height of its popularity toward the end of the nineteenth century. During this time, many people believed that it caused hallucinations. This is actually untrue, although the alcohol does contain some hallucinogenic substances; however, you would probably have to drink simply absurd quantities of the spirit before those effects actually kicked in. Nevertheless, some manufacturers actually laced their absinthe with other drugs, and absinthe is extremely intoxicating on its own, giving it some mind-altering characteristics.

Spilliaert’s absinthe drinker seems to be deep under the influence of the green fairy (a popular nickname for absinthe). Her fixed and terrified expression gives the impression that she suffers from hallucinations, scenes of horror produced by her own mind. Overall, the woman is a symbol of loneliness and the psychological isolation that plagued the newly industrialized world.

Originally published at on June 13, 2020.



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