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I’m Obsessed with the Absinthe in Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Monsieur Boileau at the Café”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Monsieur Boileau at the Café, 1893. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Monsieur Boileau at the Café, 1893. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I’d like you to meet a drinking friend of mine: Monsieur Boileau. In case you aren’t acquainted, he is best known for his appearance in the painting Monsieur Boileau at the Café (1893) by .
Monsieur Boileau, as you can probably tell, is a lot of fun. He’s sporting a bowler hat and bouncing a cigarette with what looks to be all of Paris’s matchboxes in the center. He’s completely oblivious to the bustle of activity behind him and is perhaps slurring his request for the check, his money scattered on the table. Toulouse-Lautrec’s dedication to the man is faintly visible in the upper left hand corner of the painting. In the lower third, there’s a glass of booze in an almost incandescent shade of green. It’s most likely absinthe, the much-celebrated and much-maligned spirit that’s flavored with anise. Passing a gaze back and forth between Boileau’s glazed eyes and the glass, we all know how our friend reached his current state.
I’ve kept a print of this painting in every kitchen I’ve ever had for the past decade. The pleased bliss of Monsieur Boileau is the feeling I want to provide for anybody that’s over for a meal or just a drink. Absinthe, as I’ve come to understand, just gets us to that place very quickly. I’m obsessed with this painting, and the mystical drink that’s behind Boileau’s buzz is my biggest obsession of all.
I’m not alone in having the bug for the licorice-flavored, bright-green spirit, which has only been legal for commercial sale in the United States since 2007 after a 95-year ban. The countercultural connotation the drink has is still very much intact: It’s always been associated with artists, outlaws, outcasts, wannabes in any of those three categories, bartenders in New Orleans, and well, drinkers. The loved the woozy effects of absinthe when it had stronger hallucinogenic properties; French poets like and Arthur Rimbaud kept it in their drug lineup with the hashish and opium pipes; Ernest Hemingway drank it dissolved in a glass of champagne; Anthony Bourdain made an absinthe-centered pit stop in his Paris episode of “No Reservations” replete with some cheesy psychedelic effects; and Oscar Wilde used it as the inspiration behind some of his quips. Marilyn Manson even has his own brand of absinthe.
Detail of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Monsieur Boileau at the Café, 1893. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Detail of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Monsieur Boileau at the Café, 1893. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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.”

Want to share your art obsession?

Send a 150-word summary of the detail in a work of art that you can’t stop thinking about to [email protected] with the subject line “I’m Obsessed.” We’ll review submissions for potential inclusion in our publication.
Tommy Werner