Drinkers Art: "Les Quatre Ages" by Honoré Daumier

WE AT THE BOTTLE GANG are interested in more than just drink recipes. We happily dive into the much larger task of bringing our readers the history and culture of alcohol. As a result, we have found many songs devoted to alcohol, games invented to speed up the consumption of spirits, and with this story, alcohol in art. Artists have a reputation for drinking alcohol in the hopes that their creativity will flow into their art as easily as it slides down their gullets.

Which brings us to our first art piece, a woodcut from 1862 entitled "Physiologie du Buveur, Les Quatre Ages (Physiology of the Drinker, The Four Ages)" by French artist Honoré Daumier. He isn't famous for alcohol-fueled creativity, however. Rather, his environment was inspiration enough: his art is based in social and political commentary.

"Les Quatre Ages," upon first glance, looks like a charcoal sketch instead of a woodcut. The title is in reference to four males, ranging in degrees from very young to very old, each drinking from a mug. Clearly they are working class, and they stand before a pitcher set upon a table. They are disheveled, hunched, and even the youngest boy seems to have a withered face. Their fingers are knobby and thick, not smooth from living privileged lives. Perhaps this imagery symbolizes the relentless cycle of the working class.

This piece has a direct connection to a painting entitled "The Drinkers" by Vincent Van Gogh in 1890. In a pair of letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh, wrote, "... this is to say that I do not hesitate to do copies. ... Thus, this that I slandered to do in paint, this is 'The Drinkers' of Daumier." In another letter, Van Gogh wrote, "I tried to copy Daumier's Drinkers ... c'est very difficult." Van Gogh is known to have been a troubled fellow, but not necessarily a pilferer. Just as people challenge each other to drink, Van Gogh may have considered it a challenge to paint his own rendition of Daumier’s work.

Van Gogh recognized the difficulty in copying Damier's woodblock print. Which is why it is so impressive to see how minuscule the differences are between Daumier’s "Les Quatre Ages" and Van Gogh’s "The Drinkers." The most obvious difference is Van Gogh's signature wavy lines and bright, complimentary colors. Rather than Daumier’s gray, monotone image that gives the feel of one generation after another drinking heavily because their hard work will always be unrecognized, Van Gogh's version seems like a more light-hearted scene, as though we're looking at some guys just taking a break from repairing a neighbor's front porch. (MAULT)

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