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. 

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