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Drinks throughout art history

From allegory to advertising, artists have frequently depicted the pleasures and pitfalls of drink in their work, writes Olivia Bodle.

the-absinthe-drinker-portrait-of-angel-fernandez-de-soto-1It’s found in the hollow-eyed stare of Picasso’s Absinthe Drinker (above) depicting Bohemian ennui, Nicloas Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan (below right) and its orgiastic Bacchic excess or Manet’s more measured but slightly ominous Bar at the Folies-Bergère (bottom), with its sad, expectant bar girl waiting to take another order.

Those three works might be described as a warning concerning the evils of drink – or at least its excesses but others have portrayed alcohol in rather more Nicolas_Poussin_-_The_Triumph_of_Pan_-_WGA18298pleasurable light.

These include the sun-drenched world of Champagne or pastis advertising or the more libertine connotations of the absinthe fairy – where these stand in regard to today’s alcohol advertising restrictions is open to question.

The still life paintings of the old masters, which often included a bottle of wine, among the fruit, flowers, fish and game, have also been mimicked recently by photographer Colin Hampden-White.

The first of his photographs that are meant to capture the flavours and aromas of noble grape varieties were featured recently on the drinks business‘ website.

If you know of any other famous paintings connected to wine, beer and spirits or perhaps have a favourite art deco or pop art advert connected to drinks, tell us.

Drinking it in ... Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882)

1. William Hogarth’s Gin Lane 1751

Gin Lane by William HogarthThis etching was central in anti-gin propaganda in support of the 1751 Gin Act. Depicting the evils of gin drinking, thought to be the main cause of London’s high crime rate at that time.

Meant to be viewed in contrast to his Beer Street (below), an image of happiness and prosperity, Gin Lane shows the dreadful poverty, madness, infanticide and death that was destroying a society addicted to the spirit.

Unfortunately the image is not an exaggeration; one mother in 1734 reclaimed her two-year-old child from the workhouse where it had been newly clothed. She strangled her child and sold the clothes for 1s. 4d. to buy gin. Central in anti-gin propaganda.

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2. Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe 1875

Absinthe Drinker in a Cafe Edgar DegasTwo figures sat side-by-side, staring in silent isolation droop in front of their glasses of absinthe.

The painting was released to a muted response; some thought it was a condemnation of the eponymous green spirit, which was discovered to be so harmful it was later prohibited, others thought the painting was a representation of the increasing social isolation in Paris during its period of rapid growth.

Either way critics called it “ugly and disgusting”.

3. Alexej von Jawlensky’s Stilleben mit Weinflasche 1904

Alexej_von_Jawlensky_Stilleben_mit_Weinflasche_c1904A Russian expressionist painter who, in Germany, contributed to the founding of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, which set the path for Modern art in 20th century Germany.

This piece is unique in his work, the shining bottle and crystal glass radiate elegance while the bread is broken, a napkin lies crumpled on the table and a chair is pushed aside suggesting abandonment of the scene. Interestingly the bottle appears to be full, still bearing its wax seal while the glass has been filled.

4. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Bacchus 1595

copy_michelangelo_caravaggio_4_bacchus_1595Bacchus, Roman god of wine and ecstatic parties, is depicted by Caravaggio as a youthful, blushing boy. Proffering a glass of wine to the viewer we are invited into an un-godly scene.

Decaying fruit and wilting flowers decorate a strangely androgynous teenager scantily clad in his bed sheet. Caravaggio made no attempt to uphold the purported godly illusion; the ripples in the wine held out by the boy suggest the tremble of his hand and he has dirt under his fingernails. During a recent restoration beneath decades of dirt, a small reflection in the carafe was discovered, believed to be a self-portrait by the artist.

5. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper 1498

leonardo-da-vinci-the-last-supper-1498Depicting the consternation among Jesus’ disciples when he announced one would betray him that night, this tableau of the last supper is missing one object which has fascinated men for centuries – the holy grail.

There are a few small cups on the table containing wine but no glorified chalice…some claim it is in fact the figure to the left of Christ. One of the more fantastical of the grail “legends” say it is Mary Magdelene, with whom Jesus supposedly had a child which makes her (and by association women) the “cup” that gives eternal life.

Regardless of veracity, when confronted with someone who claims all of the figures have cups and so how can the grail be one, simply add that Jesus would only have used the one in front of him.

6. Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast 1635

Rembrandt_-_Belshazzar's_Feast_-_WGA19123Inspired by the Old Testament Book of Daniel, Rembrandt painted an interrupted banquet.

The subjects in this scene recoil in fear as the writing on the wall, written by a divine hand, informs them of the imminent fall of their kingdom.

At this banquet Belshazzar blasphemously served wine in the sacred vessels which his father had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. Two vessels are being tipped, the liquid gushing from the goblets to spoil a dress and a table.

7. Vincent van Gogh’s The Drinkers 1862

The-DrinkersAn adaptation of Honoré Daumier’s wood engraving, van Gogh’s oil painting adds colour and life to a bleak scene of men drinking to escape their own insignificance, each generation drinking cyclically like the one before it. The distinctive wavy lines and bright colours of van Gogh’s style brighten an otherwise dour image.

8. The Absinthe Fairy

lafeeverteabsintheAt the end of the nineteenth century absinthe was adopted by the bohemian artists and writers living in France. Serving as the subject of many pieces of fine art and specifically mentioned in literature, we cannot know how much music, literature and art was influenced by this green muse – although Degas, Picasso (both seen previously) and van Gogh have all expressly featured absinthe drinkers in various paintings.

The art deco pieces adequately reflect the mysterious, mind-altering liquor, the nymph like fairy insinuating the aphrodisiac qualities often attributed to it.

9. Champagne Pommery 1902

champagne_pommery_vintage_champagne_poster-r55805f6b49c143c596715afee7569423_ai63f_400The early promotional posters for Pommery, featuring a goddess like woman, have helped to identify the brand with femininity since its creation.

A château which was brought forward by such a powerful woman stressed the importance of its female force in its advertising. Not that other Champagne houses shied away from using beautiful women in their advertising to increase their brand’s appeal (below).

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10. Château Mouton-Rothschild bottles

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The labels from 1945 to 2004

On the flip side, art on wine. Each year since 1945 Baron Philippe de Rothschild, an art aficionado, organised a famous contemporary artist to design the label for each vintage.

The popularity of the label images results in auction prices for the bottles with more collectible labels being out of sync with prices of the other first growths of the same year. Notably Salvador Dali designed the 1959 label, Marc Chagall the 1970 and Pablo Picasso the 1973.

Other contributors include the Prince of Wales; John Huston; Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

The most recent label added to the collection is the work of American neo-pop artist Jeff Koons (below).

Etiquette MR 2010 specimen copy

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