• News Web Exclusive

    The Evil-Looking Women Drug Addicts of French Belle Epoque Art

    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.

    1. Eugene Grasset_La Morphinomane_The Morphine Addict_600

    Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict], 1897, color lithograph.

    COLLECTION UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS, HAMMER MUSEUM. PROMISED GIFT OF ELISABETH DEAN. PHOTO: BRIAN FORREST.

    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.


    10. Victor Emile prouve_L'Opium_600

    Victor Emile Prouvé, L’Opium, 1894, color lithograph.

    COLLECTION UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS, HAMMER MUSEUM. PROMISED GIFT OF ELISABETH DEAN. PHOTO: BRIAN FORREST.

    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.


    12. Georges de Feure_La source du mal_The Source of Evil_600

    Georges de Feure, La source du mal [The Spring of Evil], 1894, color lithograph.

    COLLECTION UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS. PURCHASE. PHOTO: BRIAN FORREST.

    Kiss me deadly: Georges de Feure’s image of a nymphlike figure who appears to be crying blood, apparently the source of all evil.


    9. Paul Albert Besnard_Morphinomanes ou Le Plumet_Morphine Addicts or The Plume_600

    Paul Albert Besnard, Morphinomanes ou Le Plumet [Morphine Addicts or The Plume], 1887, etching, drypoint and aquatint.

    COLLECTION UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS. PURCHASE. PHOTO: BRIAN FORREST.

    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.


    6. Eugene Grasset_La vitrioleuse (The Acid Thrower)_600

    Eugène Grasset, La vitrioleuse [The Acid Thrower], 1894, photo-relief with water-color stenciling.

    COLLECTION UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS, HAMMER MUSEUM. PROMISED GIFT OF ELISABETH DEAN. PHOTO: BRIAN FORREST.

    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.


    14. Mary Cassatt Tea_600

    Mary Cassatt, Tea, ca. 1890, drypoint.

    UCLA GRUNWALD CENTER FOR THE GRAPHIC ARTS, HAMMER MUSEUM. PROMISED GIFT OF ELISABETH DEAN.

    The show also includes menus, theater posters, rare books, musical scores, and portraits of famous performers like Sarah Bernhardt and Loie Fuller.

    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.”

    Copyright 2014, ARTnews LLC, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

    • Pingback: Interesting! | Dee Yocom

    • etburr

      Sounds like a truly fascinating exhibition! Is there a catalog available for the show? I would love to get hold of a copy!