Tag Archives: drugs

Eugène Grasset – La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict)

23 May

“Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem
Please, Sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast?
And that this shot will be my last…”

(The Rolling Stones, Sister Morphine)

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane (The Morphine Addict), 1897, color lithograph

In one of my previous posts I wrote about Eugene Grasset’s lovely watercolour “Young Girl in the Garden”, but today I am presenting a very different work of the same artist. The heroine of the artwork is again a woman, but not a dreamy, romantic young woman standing in her garden, surrounded by flowers and birds in the sunset of the day, oh no, the heroine of this colour litograph is a morphine addict. The figure of the addict woman is portrayed from the head to the knees and this closely cropped composition makes the mood more intimate, more immediate. The fact that she is dressed in her undergarments contributes to the intimate, secretive mood. After all, injecting morphine is a private thing to do so the bedroom setting and the clothes she is wearing are both more than appropriate. We hold our breath as we watch the woman inject the morphine into her thigh. The transient pain of the needle will soon melt into sweet nothingness that the Sister Morphine offers…

“Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town
And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
And everybody puttin’ everybody else down….
Then thank God that I’m good as dead
Then thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know.“

(Velvet Underground, Heroin)

All details are eliminated; we can partly see the green chair behind the woman and the table on the left is cut off from the space of the artwork because neither are necessarry. Even the colour scheme is simplified; yellow, white, black and green, and thus all our focus goes straight to the woman and in particular to her face which is definitely the most interesting aspect of this litograph. The painful grimace on her face, with its teeth showing and eyebrows clenched is animalistic, primal, without contraints, and how different in that regard to the reserved aloofness and coldness of the elegant upper class ladies with their stiff corsets and fixed smiles.

The injection of morphine brings a rush of pleasure, followed by a drowsiness, sleepiness and dreaminess. We are witnessing this very journey; from the initial almost orgasmic pleasure to the realm of dreams where reality can’t hurt her anymore. Pleasure and dreams as means to forget it all. The flat surface and the woman’s grimace both show the Japanese influence on Western artists.

Paul Albert Besnard, Morphine Addicts or The Plume, 1887, etching, drypoint and aquatint

Grasset was just one of the fin de siecle artists who peeked behind the velvet curtains of the supposedly respectable society and painted the garish and ugly reality that was hiding there; alcoholism, prostitution, debauchery, drug use. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Kees van Dongen, Paul Albert Besnard and many others portrayed scenes of the seedy Parisian underbelly; the world of bohemians, outcasts and degenerates. The woman in this litograph -a prostitute and a morphine addict – is a stark contrast to the elegant upper class ladies seeping tea or strolling around which can be found in the art of Mary Cassatt. Paintings by Cassatt portray the visible reality, but Grasset is the voyeur who is peeking at the hidden, forbidden aspects of the late nineteenth French society.