Friday, May 10, 2013

Those Crazy Bohemians (Drinks and Drugs)

Disclaimer: This indie author is in no way advocating the use of drugs or abuse of alcohol by posting this. I am simply reporting the facts that contributed to the wild, crazy bohemian era of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Montmartre.

That said, partying was every bit as serious of a business as painting for most of the artists of Montmartre during that aforementioned heyday. For one thing, there was a nunnery in Montmartre that produced a cheap vin rouge (red wine). Can one blame the artists for wanting to contribute to the local economy? Besides, they were contributing to the church, right? :)

Even though vin was popular, the drink most of us think of when we think of those artists is absinthe. Green fairy. Ah, yes. Riding the green fairy was a frequent pass time for most of these creative artists. If you look closely at many of the paintings, you will see a glass with green in it. Ever wonder what that was? Absinthe on its own tasted horrible. It is made from wormwood and had a very bitter taste. That's why a slotted spoon was placed across one's glass and a sugar cube placed on the spoon. Then, if you were doing it the classy way, water was slowly poured over the sugar, melting it into the absinthe.

If you were in a hurry, you bypassed the class, poured alcohol on the sugar and lit it on fire. Then you turned the spoon over and dumped the flaming cube into the absinthe. Either way, the clear liquid became cloudy. But not as cloudy as the mind of the partaker. It has a chemical in it called thujone, which was blamed for all kinds of behavior. This is unlikely, however. Today we know the thujone in absinthe just isn't that strong. What was more likely is that dishonest bottlers were putting rubbing alcohol in the bottles and less absinthe. That could account for all kinds of problems, including death!

Hard drugs were not only widely available but legal. At one point there were over 1,500 legally operating opium dens in Paris. The French Navy even looked the other way when sailors used it...until they caused a submarine accident. When The Moulin Rouge opened there was a fake elephant on the property. Inside, a gentleman (?) could partake in opium and prostitutes.

Heroin became legal once doctors began realizing opium caused problems. In fact, the same makers of Bayer also made heroin - and they decided aspirin had too many dangerous side affects so they kept that from the public and marketing heroin!

Yes, at different points during this era one could buy heroin or opium candy, cough drops, smoke it,do whatever they wanted with it and even gave it to children who were sick. Hashish was plentiful and also legal. Smoked and eaten, most artists were either high or drunk a good majority of the time. Perhaps that helped them see things in a new way!

It's interesting to read about how many of these artists went to insane asylums periodically, tried to commit suicide, became alcoholics, and actually did end up taking their life. It had to be sometimes caused by drugs and alcohol. Other times it was probably caused by the paints themselves. No one yet understood much about the toxic qualities of many mineral based paints. In fact, Paris Green (the most popular green for Impressionist painters) was also being used as rat poison in the Paris sewers. Hmmmmm. Nobody could figure out that perhaps that wasn't good to have on your skin?

Then there were the solvents and sometimes poorly ventilated surroundings. Inhaling turpentine for hours at a time couldn't do much for the brain cells. No wonder they drank and got high. They probably usually felt like hell.

Heavy partiers, yes, but at a very heavy price. On the surface, it appears like a fun, crazy time. Dig a little deeper and one finds that many people paid for the fun with their sanity and their lives. Oh, you crazy bohemians. You were so decadent, and yet so innocent. If only you knew the heavy price you were likely to pay for all of that pleasure. And perhaps you still would have done it. Live wasn't easy and being numb for awhile was quite likely a blessed relief.

Caddy Rowland is a novelist and painter. Her social media links follow.
To find out about her novels (including The Gastien Series, a story that begins with a bohemian artist in France) visit
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Twitter: @caddyorpims

1 comment:

  1. WOW...i learn more things about this time period...and as always will be googling things to see more..thank you!!!