Daily Art Moments: Albert Besnard

Black etching on cream paper depicting two light-skinned women sitting at a table seen from about the waist up. The first woman is at far left, seen from the side, her body facing right but head turned to look to the viewer or artist. She has a cap of dark hair parted in the center, dark arched eyebrows, and large, dark eyes. Her nose is narrow, she has high cheekbones, a small mouth, and pointed chin. Her dark, voluminous, puffy sleeve takes up most of the bottom left corner. Areas of the cream, unworked paper depict the gathers and folds of the huge sleeve. Her thin, pale forearm extends from the huge sleeve and ends in a bony hand that rests on the edge of a table, holding a black feather. Her companion is at center, facing front, head resting on her hand and tilted to the right, her elbow on table. She appears to be looking to the left at the other woman. She has lighter hair and her face appears slightly hazy as if seen through smoke. Line work radiates off head combining her hair with the swirling background, creating a feeling of movement. A large, tall carafe sits at right on the table. It has a short, squat body with a long neck that reaches up to nearly the top right of the work. The entire work is composed of very thin linework, hatched and crosshatched to achieve shading and texture. A wide unworked border surrounds the scene.

“In late nineteenth-century Paris, morphine, a powerful opiate, was both legal and widespread. Although addiction afflicted all classes of society, artists were particularly fond of depicting fashionable women as part of the decadent underbelly of the city. In this etching, Besnard depicts two glassy-eyed morphinomanes (morphine addicts) relaxing into a stupor. The carafe on the table suggests additional intoxicants—alcohol, perhaps, or absinthe?—while the smoke swirling about their heads evokes the interior of an opium den. Interestingly, the artist eschews all obvious tools and iconography of morphine use, and only the title alerts the viewer that this is not a typical Parisian café. The suggestive placement of the feather in the brunette’s hand, however, may be a coded reference to the needle used to inject the potent substance, while Besnard’s whispery use of drypoint creates an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere of oblivion and escape.”

Mary Weaver Chapin, Curator of Prints and Drawings

Albert Besnard (French, 1849–1934). Morphinomanes ou Le Plumet (Morphine Addicts or The Feather), 1887. Etching on Japan paper. Museum Purchase: Jean Y. Roth Memorial Fund, 2014.40.1

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