Beer Makes an Impression
Color, light and form have always defined the prime elements for illustrating beer. No matter the medium, proper composition demands an artist’s attention to those three fundamentals. Depicting a glowing, inviting glass of beer—a colored, but transparent liquid—tests the depth of an artist’s skill, and although many schools of art have risen to that challenge, no group was more adept than the impressionists. Their style was naturally suited to portray beer as art.
If art reflects life, there was no better time for beer than that of the impressionists in the latter third of the 1800s. The period witnessed an emergence of industry and technology as a powerful mixture that rendered all manner of societal change. Artists, capturing the image of change, used beer as a vehicle. But portraying beer, as well as other subjects they chose, also forced artists to alter their technique, resulting in an entirely new art style.
Beginning in the 1860s, the impressionists assembled as a loosely formed group of artists. Generally working in and around Paris, they began their careers following the same regime presented to all students. Honing their skills in the Louvre, they copied works of the masters for days on end. As “Rapins” (students), they were schooled in the traditional method that first required a mastery of drawing. Only then would their mentors allow the use of paint, applied in the classical technique of layers, in tones from dark to light. Colors were thought to be a distraction. In the ateliers (art schools), the emphasis was on texture and the gentle gradation of tone, a method totally unsuited for depicting beer.
Rapins Bazille, Renoir, Sisley and Degas found no room for beer in their studies. Instead, this core of the impressionists was forced to endure the rigid and oppressive school of traditional art. Nudes and allegory were plentiful as subjects, but beer was scarce. Unlike their predecessors, the masters of the romantic period never addressed the difficulty of portraying beer; to them it was irrelevant. Pursuit of subject matter and style other than the dark and conservative classics invited ridicule from critics and rejection by the public. But the impressionists soon braved that risk.
Influenced by the landscapes of the earlier romantic and Barbizon schools, impressionism traced its origins back to “The Hay Wain” by John Constable, which emphasized a “natural transparency and brilliance of color.” So influenced, the impressionists, too, turned to the outdoors as their subject. This approach was a revolutionary move toward realism in what the poet Jules Laforgue described as “…nature as she is, which is to say solely by means of colored vibrations.” From there it was a short step to depicting modern life as they saw it. In the process, they shifted the emphasis of art from the classic subjects to the activities and customs of people at leisure. Both art and society were changing and beer was changing with them.
Beer Becomes Stylish
Long considered a staple of life, beer, in the late 1800s, evolved into more. It became stylish. What led to this new fashionable stature was the perfection of lager brewing, coupled with the introduction of inexpensive glassware.
Lager brewing produced a clear, bright, attractive beer of rich golden hues. Nearly overnight, lager brewing released beer from its hiding place in earthen mugs, wooden goblets, and leather jacks. Beer was ready for admiration. In an instance of perfect timing, improved production methods afforded common people the luxury of glass on the table. Served in glass, lager beer shone brilliantly, and beer was everywhere.
Lager beer and impressionism both hit full stride in the 1870s. France had recently blundered its way into the Franco-Prussian war. Paris was laid to siege, and the half-starved residents of the city were forced, in some neighborhoods, to eat dogs, cats and rats. Following the humiliation of surrender, battle-weary Parisians were ready to erase the memories of war. The City of Light emerged again, as the populace embraced the new practice of “going out.” Cafés filled with legions of happy beer drinkers, and close by, the impressionists were ready to capture the reawakened city on canvas.
Reflecting, coloring, and diffusing light, beer perfectly fit the type of image that captured the impressionists’ imagination. As such, it became a featured subject. Claude Monet offered the best advice on natural lighting and how to convey its appearance: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you…. Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape….”
Edouard Manet capitalized on Monet’s advice to great effect in “The Beer Waitress.” Look at the mugs she holds. Manet’s method of depicting the beer’s transparency was by emphasizing its distortion of surrounding light and colors. The artist used beer to reflect the pipe smoker’s shirt with a little flash of blue, the refraction of the waitress’s blouse with long streaks of black in the mug closer to her body, and lighter colors in the one held toward the foreground. Manet didn’t struggle to duplicate the look of beer, but rather, the impact it had on light. In doing so, he produced one of the most appealing portraits of beer ever rendered.
Part of the Café Scene
It was not the use of light alone, however, that separated the impressionists from previous schools of art; it was their concentration on “modern life.” With realism as their guiding theme, they turned from carefully arranged backgrounds and forced poses to scenes from everyday life, and beer went with them. Françoise Cachin in his book, Manet, described the emergence of beer: “…brasseries began to multiply, beer, considered before the war to be a peasant’s drink, had become the respectable drink. Sitting in front of a … glass of beer, Manet would observe life of the streets, and discuss ideas with his fellow artists.”
Indeed, a glass of beer in a friendly café describes the setting in which Manet preferred to discuss art with his peers, Degas, Monet, Zola and Astruc. Before the war, his favorite was the Café Guerbois. Following 1870 he held court at several, including the Café de Bade, Pavard’s Rotisserie, the Brasserie de Reichshoffen, and the Nouvelle Athenes on Place Pigalle. Small wonder that beer was so prominent in his work.
Impressionistic work could also extend beyond mere depiction to provide social commentary. The renewed belief that beer was a healthy and acceptable drink was no better illustrated than in a pair of works by Manet and Edgar Degas. During 1875 Degas completed the “Absinthe Drinker,” in its composition ably projecting absinthe’s reputation as a vile and debilitating intoxicant. Walter Crane, on viewing the canvas in 1893, called it a study in human degradation. Manet, who admired Degas, contrasted the “Absinthe Drinker” in 1879, with “At the Café Concert” in which quite healthy looking subjects enjoy a glass of beer.
Degas was among those with more than just a passing interest in the life of Paris. His notebook contained a self reminder for the artist to “Draw all kinds of everyday objects.” Other impressionists were of the same mind, and their works depicted Parisians’ enthusiasm for beer. That fondness of beer brought the beverage to nearly every type of social gathering. Naturally, the artists then placed it in their works.
Where’s the Beer?
In many impressionistic paintings, today’s viewer has no difficulty spotting beer, but in others, one must first understand the times. It’s a problem created by the new glassware. During the impressionist period, barware was far from standardized. All variety of mugs, goblets and stemware was employed, especially if it enhanced the table with a look of leisurely elegance. Degas’ “Women on the Terrace of a Café in the Evening” and Manet’s “Women Drinking Beer” each depicted glasses that seem more suited for Irish coffee, though it was beer they held. More important than the beer was the illustration of the period’s social mores. In both works, the artists show how, for the first time, it was acceptable for women to go out for a drink without an escort.
As opposed to the large, somewhat unwieldy glasses painted by Degas and Manet, Pierre-August Renoir illustrated a more delicate stemware in “Ball at the Moulin de la Galette” in which the beer was served in flutes of cut glass. Renoir’s painting also conveys the degree to which the artistic community socialized with beer. All the young revelers at the table were fellow artists, including Pierre Franc-Lamay, Norbert Goenette, both painters, and the writer Georges Riviere. The dancer in the pink dress was Marguerite Legrand, and her partner was the Cuban painter Solares.
Dawn of a New Century
Although the volume of impressionist paintings was significant, the period itself was brief. Scarcely 15 years after the first exhibition, the era of impressionism was on the wane. Though fading, its bold departure from classical styles inspired the next generation of painters. They studied and developed, firmly rooted in the theory of realism before evolving into subsequent philosophies of artistic representation.
One of the last works of impressionistic style, “The Restaurant” was executed at the dawn of the new century. Prominently featured in the center of the painting is a stylishly dressed gentleman in black evening coat, tie, and top hat, enthusiastically indulging in a large mug of beer. Well studied in both the impressionist style and in beer, that artist would become a pioneer in yet another new movement. His name was Pablo Picasso.
Gregg Smith is a GABF beer judge and author of four books on beer, including The Beer Drinkers’ Bible and Beer in America. He was twice named beer writer of the year by the North American Guild of Beer Writers.