Léon Spilliaert painted La Buveuse d’absinthe (The Absinth Drinker) in 1907, during the most creative period of his career, between 1899 and 1912. This watercolour owes its particularity not only to its quality and its gallery dimensions (105 x77 cm), but also because of its interest to art history.
It was after returning to Ostend, his native town, in 1904, following a brief stay in Paris, that Spilliaert made his famous series of fifteen self-portraits, in which solitude and psychological conflict are depicted in a highly personal manner. Stylistically La Buveuse d’absinthe falls into this series of paintings. Contrary to habit, Spilliaert painted a frontal view of the woman, probably because he was struck by her hallucinatory state.
The result is a rather mortifying portrait that shows the destructive power of addiction on a young socialite, a habituée of Ostend nightlife. The work sets itself apart from most of the self-portraits through the extreme stylisation of the physiognomy of the face. What stands out most are the model’s dilated pupils in the sunken blackness of her eye sockets.
The way in which the model is framed is another unusual aspect of the painting. The subject fills practically the whole pictorial space, making any reference to time or space impossible. The singularity of the work also comes from the harmony between palette and technique. The typical alternation of light and dark is combined with flat colours and parts that are painted and drawn. It is this perfect interaction between colour and technique and between shape and background that gives La Buveuse d’absinthe its intense and timeless atmosphere.
The King Baudouin Foundation’s Heritage Fund acquired this major work in a sale at Sotheby’s, Paris and entrusted it to the Fine Arts Museum of Ghent.