Monsieur Boileau at the Café
was completed in 1893 when Paris had its own culture
around “the green fairy,” a cast of artists who created under the influence while living there, and cafés that featured “the drink of Parisian abandon.” Toulouse-Lautrec, like most of his Impressionist contemporaries, loved the potent drink. But unlike the way absinthe plays into the myths around ’s
treatment of color or ’s
works depicting the drink’s potentially ruinous effects (see his L’Absinthe
, 1875–76), Toulouse-Lautrec is an unabashed advocate of the green stuff (he even created his own cocktails
featuring absinthe). His works portray absinthe as a social lubricator or, in Monsieur Boileau’s case, a social placater.
What did the morning after Monsieur Boileau’s night out look like? Does anybody care? The painting is a bona fide portrait of a bon vivant with no regard for whether it’s a good idea to have another—or if the money on the table is even enough to cover the bill.
While history shows us that absinthe had quite a few consequences in Parisian society (and Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from alcoholism throughout his adult life), in this painting, Boileau displays the kind of reckless abandon that fueled a remarkable time to be an artist in France. Boileau’s dazed grin and half-closed eyes dare us to have a better time than he’s having.
And as a devotee of absinthe in its tamer, modern iteration, believe me, the spirit can still move one to a state of bliss.
I attempted making my first batch of absinthe at my home in New York City the summer of 2015, using an infusion recipe from Diner Journal. I went on a search (a quest, really) for the recipe’s blend: I bought wormwood, roots, botanicals, and even ended up purchasing catnip for use (it’s psychoactive for cats, too!), chasing the ingredients and, more importantly, the idea of the green fairy.
After completing my first batch of homemade absinthe, a friend of mine moved to New York from South Carolina on a whisker budget. He walked to my house in south Brooklyn from his Manhattan bus stop, with no cell service and completely dependent on strangers. He stopped at intersection bodegas and asked for directions, hoping to find some sort of hospitality that would lead him to me. We shared a meal when he got in, and I mentioned I had a treat for us. His piqued interest (like I said, absinthe has a hell of a reputation) led me to ask whether he’d like a cocktail with it. (Maybe a classic Sazerac, with whiskey and sugar? Maybe a martini with a dash?) He wanted it straight, no chaser, no ice, like the greats, which I took to be the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec or Rimbaud. I poured out a double measure with a warning: The flavor, and the effect, might be intense.
I remember seeing the glint in Monsieur Boileau’s eye from the print on my kitchen wall during our toast—and I remember my friend’s remark from the following morning:
“Thanks for the hospitality last night. But I want you to know all I can taste is licorice.”
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