As the morphine craze gripped Paris, a new archetype of angry, scary women emerged in French prints. Collectors loved them
Good girls drank tea; bad girls took morphine. In Belle Epoque Paris, they all had their reasons for catching a buzz.
The turn of the 19th century is thought of as a golden age in Paris, where women in billowing dresses and coy hats glided from theater to cabaret. The reality was bleaker, notes Cynthia Burlingham, co-curator of “Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914,” a show of prints at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that reflects the extremes in women’s lives.
With few chances for school or jobs, many desperate women turned to prostitution and morphine, both of which were legal. The tortured female addict became a common presence in the art of the time, which was made, of course, mostly by men.
The new feminine archetype who appears in these pictures is a far cry from the virgins and aristocrats who had long dominated European art, or the stylish socialites who had emerged more recently. With their crazy eyes and uncontrollable urges, these ruined women were way less sexy and more dangerous than the classic femme fatale.
Eugène Grasset’s lithograph of a woman, apparently a prostitute, shooting up in her leg was an emblem of the time. The subject is shocking, but the treatment is quite esthetic—the flat areas of color riff on Japanese prints, while the locks of hair reflect an Art Nouveau influence. For many painters, printmaking offered a chance to experiment.
Burlingham and co-curator Victoria Dailey assembled the show from the Elisabeth Dean Collection, a promised gift to the Hammer, along with prints from the museum’s own Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts. Though the images traverse the grit and glamour of French society, the curators chose tea and morphine as symbols of women’s experience, and of the major role these mood-altering substances played on the world stage.
Most of these prints belonged to portfolios that collectors ordered by subscription and displayed to guests at home. That was the case with Victor Emile Prouvé’s L’Opium, a lithograph of a zoned-out woman entwined with a poppy plant. The subject would have been so common that viewers had no doubt what an opium poppy looked like, Burlingham says.
Kiss me deadly: Georges de Feure’s image of a nymphlike figure who appears to be crying blood, apparently the source of all evil.
Middle-class Morphinomanes appear in Paul Albert Besnard’s suggestive etching. One of the addicts, in her spindly hand, grasps feathers that echo the swirling morphine crystals in the carafe beside her.
Grasset’s La vitrioleuse depicts one of the female acid-throwers who were said to exact dreadful revenge on their enemies, a sort of urban legend that reflects the ingrained misogyny of the times, according to Burlingham.
Finally, there is Tea, by the lone female artist in “Tea and Morphine,” Mary Cassatt. The girl taking her break in the summertime heat appears to be in control.
But since she appears at the end of the show, “by the time you see her, she looks a little out of it,” Burlingham says. “She’s off in her own kind of world.”