Even the earliest humans made and enjoyed art. And early humans also enjoyed drinking alcohol. For example, anthropologists find evidence that humans have made alcoholic beverages for at least twelve thousand years.
I. Ancient Period
II. Christian Period
III. Dawn of Modern Era
IV. The 21st Century
So it makes sense that our ancestors have long shown alcoholic beverages in their art. Thus, the place of alcohol in art has a long history.
I. Alcohol in Art: Ancient Period
The ancient Egyptians often painted images of beer and wine production and consumption. Their images show great detail. That enables us to understand much about their alcohol culture.
In contrast, ancient Greek painters almost always associated it with religion or mythology. They commonly portrayed the god of wine, Bacchus. And they often showed him as intoxicated.
In the Roman Empire, artists sometimes portrayed banquets and orgies. In some cases, they included intoxicated individuals.
II. Alcohol in Art: Christian Period
Christian art focused on religious themes. Wine is in paintings of the last supper. But wine occurs in other paintings as well.
Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, Martin, Allston and others.
- The Marriage at Cana by Bonvicino Murillo, Tintoretto, Veronese, and others.
- Feast in the House of Levi by Veronese and others.
- Drunkenness of Noah by Michelangelo, Benozzo, Gozzolio and others.
- Lot Intoxicated by His Daughters by Velasquez, Guercino, Veronese, Giordano and others.
Yet Christians also painted Bacchanalian themes, as well.
- Bacchanal by Titian, Bellini, Ricci, Poussin and others..
- The Drunken Silenus by Rubens, Van Dyck, Lo Spagnoletto, Fracanzano, and others.
- Bacchus by Caravaggio, Guido, van Dalen, Millot and others.
Impact of the Renaissance
In many early paintings, alcohol is not easy to notice. But the Renaissance profoundly changed society. It lasted roughly from the 14th to the 17th centuries. There was less concern with religion and the afterlife. Interest in the world increased. Simple scenes depicting everyday life of everyday people became common.
This trend markedly increased during the 17th century. At that time, painters clearly became less interested in conveying morals and religious values. They wanted to express themselves and portray the world around them.
Painters of the Dutch school often presented scenes of drinking. Jan Steen was a Dutch painter of the 17th century.
The titles of Steen’s works suggest the everyday nature of their subject matter. They include “Party of Peasants,” “Peasants before an Inn,” and “Children Teaching a Cat to Dance.” He also painted “Dancing Peasants” and ‘The Doctor and His Patient.” And there were many, many more.
But other genres joined the the Dutch. These included the Spanish, French and English schools.
Diego Velasquez is an excellent example of the Spanish school. His Los Borrachos (The Drunks) is of an ordinary event. But it portrays Bacchus in a stylized manner. It’s not the earthy subject matter of Steen.
Velasquez shows less drinking in his other paintings. Many are of simple, everyday scenes of ordinary people. But many are portraits of nobility, for which he is justly famous.
Murillo is another member of the Spanish school. As with Velasquez, Murillo used ordinary subject matter in ‘Youth Drinking.’
Nicholas Poussin created one of the best known alcoholic beverage painting within the French school. It’s his ‘Bacchanalian Revel.’ On the other hand, Watteau provides realism in his ‘The Bivouac.’ It’s an ordinary temporary camp in the woods.
III. Alcohol in Art: Dawn of the Modern Era
William Hogarth was a member of the English school in the 18th century. No discussion of alcohol in art would be complete without mentioning his famous Beer Street and Gin Lane engravings. But our focus here is on paintings.
The four paintings in Hogarth’s “The Humours of an Election” series all provide drinking scenes. “Canvassing for Votes” was one in the series. Drinking also appears in his series, “Marriage a la Mode.”
Scottish painter David Wilkie was active during the 19th century. His “The Village Holiday” portrays intoxicated men sympathetically. Their intoxication is a sign of understandable human frailty.
During the same period, Englishman George Cruikshank completed his “The Worship of Bacchus.” And George Moreland painted his “Alehouse Politicians.”
Robert Braithwaite Martineau painted in the mid-19th century. His fascinating ‘The Last Day in the Old Home’ portrays a story. But it actually suggests a number of interrelated stories. The scene draws the viewer in and invites speculation. Was the problem alcohol? Or was it really gambling. And the clues are all there, as in any good detective story.
Alcohol in art appeared more often in paintings over time. An example is Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere”
Another is his “Le Bon Bock” (The Good Beer). It’s simply the image of a pipe-smoker with a beer in his hand. Its direct, unemotional and unromantic simplicity anticipates the future of painting. But, of course, history doesn’t move consistently. Nor predictably. Even in the same artist.
Pablo Picasso painted many pictures of drinking. Absinthe had become popular in the early 20th century. People called it the “Green Fairy” and believed that it caused hallucinations. Picasso painted many pictures titled the Absinthe Drinker. So it’s necessary to distinguish one from another. However, “The Absinthe Drinker” ( Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto), shown here, is a typical example.
Picasso was probably the most influential artist of the 20th century. He was also highly productive and did about 13,500 paintings. In addition, he was very versatile. He not only painted but drew, sculpted, made prints, created ceramics, and designed both costumes and stage sets.
IV. Alcohol in Art: The 21st Century
Julia Jacquette is a 21st century artist. Her ‘Scotch, Rocks 1’ painting is a photorealistic work. Yet it’s also an abstract image of Scotch on the rocks. Thus, it combines traditional realism with contemporary abstractionism.*
The unfolding story of alcohol in paintings during the 21st century should be an exciting one.
V. Alcohol in Art: Conclusion
The role and treatment of alcohol in art has changed dramatically over time. Painters have connected it with mythology, religion, and human emotion. They have both praised and reviled it. And they have portrayed it as a source of great pleasure and of misery.
Alcohol and drinking have served as a continuing Rorscht Test. Artists draw from it what they perceive. That, in turn, is largely a reflection of their personal experience and culture. So alcohol in art is both psychological and cultural in nature. The same is true of the observer.
In reality, alcohol is inherently a neutral substance. It’s how we use it that determines whether it’s good or bad.
A Brief Look
Here’s a brief look at some examples of alcohol in art by well-known painters.
Gombrich, E. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon, 1995.
Hauser, A. Social History of Art. NY:Taylor & Francis, 2000.
Inglis, D., and Hughson, J. The Sociology of Art. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Mather, G. The Psychology of Visual Art. NY: Cambridge U Press, 2014.
Stokstad, M., and Cothren, M. Art History. NY: Prentis-Hall, 2010.
*Your host receives no benefit from describing this painting. To learn more about the piece, contact Cade Tomkins Project, Providence RI.