Victorian Woman on Drugs, Part 3: Visual Representations

Points is pleased to present the third installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens four-part series on women’s drug use in Victorian England. Today, Kristina looks at – among other things – visual representations of women’s drug use and the male gaze.

In my last post, I looked at autobiographical writing by women that reveals some surprisingly humorous and positive attitudes toward drug experimentation. Last week’s writings, however, were not nearly as pervasive as certain visual images—many of them used in advertising—that depicted women having a very different relation to drugs. These visual images were not realistic, nor were they intended to reveal anything about the female experience. Instead, they sought to appeal to a male audience, either to sell a product or warn consumers of its dangers. Due in part to the popularity of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the quintessential drug experimenter was already envisioned as being male. The visual images in this week’s post elaborate on this basic assumption, while adding exploring the personification of the drug itself as female. Many of the most widely known visual representations of drug use from the nineteenth century employ images of woman serving as little more than an object of the male gaze or as a cipher for the development of male subjectivity through drug experimentation.

Speaking of nineteenth-century French drug literature, Marcus Boon writes in his book The Road of Excess that “Drugs themselves were pictured as seductresses like Salome or the Odyssean Circe in this literature. Heroin was ‘the white fairy,’ morphine ‘the grey fairy,’ opium ‘the black idol,’ and absinthe ‘the green fairy.’ ‘She’ (the drug) seduced with her beauty and the pleasure she offered, and then led you to ruin” (48). These metaphors trade in the stereotypes of women as alluring, deceptive, and destructive and employ a conventional narrative about male drug use as tragically addictive.

Maignan's 'The Green Muse'

Perhaps the most familiar such personification is absinthe, the “Green Fairy.” The gendered metaphors Boon points out can easily be discerned in Albert Maignan’s 1895 painting The Green Muse. This painting depicts what seems to be the beginning of the love affair between a man and his drug, as the expression on the face of the writer suggests ecstasy. The beautiful woman soothes him with the touch of her fingers, and the painting’s title suggests that this Green Fairy inspires artistic expression. Still, the arguably haggard look of the man’s face and the position of his hands convey the possibility of a more tortured future.

Oliva's 'Absinthe Drinker'

The 1901 painting Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva depicts what could be considered a more advanced stage in the affair. In this painting, the male protagonist, rather than being inspired or uplifted by the drug in any way, has been reduced to staring directly and quite blankly at the naked apparition before him. No pleasure is apparent in his expression, though he is nonetheless enthralled.

Privat-Livemont's Advertisement

In Victorian advertising, when women were featured drinking or offering absinthe or other drug-like beverages (such as Vin Mariani, a tonic of cocaine-infused wine), they were more likely than men to appear naked or in sexually suggestive poses. Some of these advertisements, such as the famous poster for Absinthe Robette by Henri Privat-Livemont, are now regarded as iconic art nouveau images. Others, such as this advertisement for Vin Mariani, dispensed with artistic sensibilities in favor of a more, shall we say, direct message about the product’s ability to increase sexual prowess. Even when a woman is shown clothed and actually drinking the beverage, she is still usually subject to the male gaze, as shown very clearly in a particularly creepy advertisement for Absinthe Montbeliard, in which a man sits directly across from a woman, staring at her as she sips her absinthe as if for his enjoyment rather than her own. 

Vin Mariani Advertisement
Absinthe Montbeliard Advertisement

Now that we are familiar with these depictions, I would now like to turn to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s much 1863 painting Beata Beatrix. Unlike the absinthe advertisements or the personified paintings, Beata Beatrix might not strike the viewer at first as a drug-related painting. Rossetti often painted literary or biblical scenes, and Beata Beatrix depicts the death of Dante Alighieri’s beloved Beatrice from the Divine Comedy. However, it is generally accepted that the white poppy in the painting symbolizes the opium addiction of the artist’s model, Lizzie Siddal.

Rosetti's 'Beata Beatrix'

Celebrated Pre-Raphaelite model Lizzie Siddal, the mistress and eventual wife of artist Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, became addicted to the laudanum her doctor prescribed to relieve stress and depression, and to treat the chronic stomach pain and vomiting which led to severe weight loss. Shortly after the stillbirth of her first child, Siddal overdosed on the drug. Although her death was officially ruled accidental, it is generally now thought to have been a suicide. According to Louise Foxcroft, Rossetti’s notoriously cruel behavior toward Siddal both before and after their marriage caused numerous rumors to spread that Rossetti had murdered her, while Oscar Wilde proclaimed that Rossetti had put the laudanum into her hands and commanded her to drink it all as he left the house. Rossetti later attempted suicide by laudanum himself, though he was revived.

In the painting, a dove places a white poppy in Siddal’s upturned palms, representing Siddal’s death by opium overdose. She is bathed in a beautiful warm light which may represent forgiveness and love. The expression on her face reveals her ecstatic state over the release the poppy offers her, whether that release should come through intoxication or death. The painting is often considered a romantic commemoration of Rossetti’s love for and grief over Siddal. In some ways, it could be seen as a depiction, or even acceptance, of the woman’s experience with addiction.

What disturbs me about this painting is that it serves as a memorial to Siddal.  All of Rossetti’s paintings of Siddal idealize her, but this glamorized depiction beautifies her pain in a way that seems particularly repugnant in light of her probable suicide. As with the advertisements in which women drink absinthe or coca wine for the enjoyment of men, Lizzie Siddal enjoys the ecstasy of a drug-induced transcendence only within the framework of the male gaze. Though Lizzie Siddal is not pictured as a drug in Rossetti’s depiction of her death, she functions similarly to the “Green Muse” in the paintings of Maignan or Oliva, having her own drug-related experience appropriated for the artistic expression of an allegedly abusive husband.

L'Absinthe

At least two other paintings of the time deserve a few words. The first is L’Absinthe (1876), by Edgar Degas. Unlike the romanticized images above, Degas’ painting aims at a more naturalistic scene, one that critics decried as disgusting and tawdry. Appearing tired and lost in her thoughts, the woman in the painting could be read as either being in a stupor from drinking absinthe or as simply contemplating something to which we do not have access as viewers. Yet critics were quick to assign a moral to the story. After the painting’s English showing in 1893, critic George Moore speculated in The Speaker that the woman had been out drinking until 2 am, slept in until 11:30, threw on some “soiled” rags, “and came down to the café to have an absinthe before breakfast. Heavens! – what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson.” Though Moore later retracted his assignment of a moral lesson to the painting, his initial condemnation of the woman in the painting reveals how quickly and violently a woman with a drink who is not displayed for male pleasure may be judged.

Picasso's 'The Absinthe Drinker'

I want to end on a painting that was produced a bit later, The Absinthe Drinker (1901), an early work by Pablo Picasso. In this painting, a woman again sits before a glass of absinthe. She is not glamorous, nor is she acting as a catalyst for a man’s experiences. Whether she is contemplating another drink or simply thinking about something beyond the viewer’s comprehension is not clear. She is entirely alone, wrapping her arms around herself as if to emphasize her isolation, or as if to stop the viewer from assigning a story to her. Picasso produced a number of works that included “Absinthe Drinker” in the title or subtitle, several of which depicted men. With this image and the proliferation of similar titles, it’s as if he is making the radical suggestion that a woman’s experience with a drug could be as personal and as contemplative as a man’s.

In my next post, I will turn to the drug-related narratives in a visual medium of a different kind and from a different century: HBO’s Deadwood.

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