Illuminating Addiction: Morphinomania in Fin de Siècle Visual Culture
by Natalia Angeles Vieyra
In the nineteenth century, the introduction of medical morphine lead rapidly to the emergence of a devastating social ill among the French bourgeousie, that of morphine addiction. This article considers two prints, Paul-Albert Besnard’s etching, Morphinomanes ou La Plume (1887) and Eugene Grasset’s lithograph, Morphinomane (1897). Using these as the locus of inquiry, it will demonstrate how representations of female morphine addicts during the fin de Siècle functioned within a larger cultural apparatus that sought to condemn indulgence in pleasure-seeking behaviors among women. The article will investigate how behaviors such as drug abuse, sartorial indulgence, and autoerotic experimentation threatened to disrupt the gender politics of the late-nineteenth century because of their self-gratifying potential. Furthermore, it will examine the role of the print within this discourse, considering how the medium would have dictated the choice of subject matter and spectator’s engagement.
French Art
19th Century
Drug Addiction
Paul Albert Besnard
Eugene Grasset
Fin de Siècle
Feminist Art History
In 1805, the young German chemist Friedrich Sertürner successfully isolated pure alkaloid crystals from­­­ the opium poppy, a scientific breakthrough that would have a tremendous impact on the development of modern medicine and pharmacology. Unaware of the momentousness of his discovery, Sertürner recklessly tested the crystals on himself, subsequently naming his compound after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams.1 By the turn of the next century, the ubiquity of morphine and its abuse was such that the French novelist Victorien du Saussay condemned the proliferation of drug culture in France, declaring that, “In Paris alone, there are more than three hundred thousand scum who shoot up morphine, drink ether, swallow hashish, smoke opium.”2 Despite the prevalence of morphine addiction amongst soldiers, physicians, and older women, morphine addicts, known as morphinomanes, were most frequently envisioned as young women, indulging in a novel and distinctly modern vice. The figure of the morphinomane quickly infiltrated the popular culture of the period; her presence was noticed everywhere, from newspapers and medical publications, to pulp literature and the minor arts, even making occasional forays into the French Salon (fig. 1).
Albert Matignon, Morphine (1905), Château-musée de Nemours, France, oil on canvas, 105 x 145cm.
the best-known and most historically significant visual representations of the morphinomane are not found in the academic disciplines of painting and sculpture, but within the medium of printmaking. Within this study, I will consider two unique prints, Paul-Albert Besnard’s etching, Morphinomanes ou La Plume (1887) and Eugène Grasset’s lithograph, Morphinomane (1897). Using these prints as the locus of inquiry, I will demonstrate how representations of female morphine addicts within fin-de-siècle visual culture functioned within a larger cultural apparatus that sought to condemn indulgence in pleasure-seeking behaviors among women. Furthermore, I will investigate how drug abuse, sartorial indulgence, and autoerotic experimentation, behaviors which frequently overlap with artistic representations of the morphinomane, threatened to disrupt the complex gender politics of the late-nineteenth century as a result of their potential to produce pleasurable self-gratification. Finally, I will consider the role of the print within this discourse, examining how the print medium would have dictated the choice of subject matter and the engagement of the spectator with these controversial images.
An initial overview of the morphine epidemic and its origins will provide indispensable context for this discussion. As previously noted, Friedrich Sertürner successfully isolated the active narcotic ingredient, morphine alkaloid crystals, from the opium poppy3 in 1805. Following his discovery, physicians began prescribing morphine for oral consumption. Using this delivery method, morphine was absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach lining, requiring larger quantities in order to achieve an anesthetizing or narcotic effect. As a result, the medical applications of morphine remained relatively limited until the mid-nineteenth century, when the invention of the hypodermic needle revolutionized the administration of pharmaceutical drugs.4 The use of the syringe enabled physicians to deliver a dose of morphine directly into the bloodstream, creating a rapid and powerful high. By the 1870s, physicians were prescribing morphine in a therapeutic capacity via subcutaneous injection across Europe and the United States.5
The initial reception of morphine in the Western medical community was overwhelming positive. Morphine was hailed as a panacea, a veritable cure-all used to treat everything from toothaches to syphilis.6 In a seminal German medical text, Dr. Felix von Niemeyer, Professor of Pathology and Therapeutics and Director of the Medical Centre at the University of Tübingen in Wurttemberg, testified to the popularity of morphine among physicians:
The introduction of hypodermic injections was a great event, and…an immense advance in treatment…I know many physicians who never go out to their practice without a syringe and a solution of morphine in their pocket, and who usually bring the morphine-bottle home empty.7
However, by the end of the decade, reports of an alarming new social ill, termed ‘morphinism’ or ‘morphinomania,’ began to emerge in European medical publications. Respected physicians who had initially praised morphine retracted their previous statements, instead spouting vehement warnings about the dangers of narcotic drugs.8 In his influential monograph of 1877, Die Morphiumsucht, the German physician Dr. Eduard Levinstein described the insatiable and destructive craving of the morphine addict. Morphinism, Levinstein argued, was defined by the “uncontrollable desire of a person to use morphia as a stimulant and a tonic, and the diseased state of the system caused by the injudicious use of the said remedy.”9 Similarly, in his aforementioned text, Dr. Felix von Niemeyer described morphine withdrawal as resembling a katzenjammer (hangover), stating that, “They [morphine addicts] feel dull, and complain of an indefinable weakness, discomfort, trembling.”10 Once hooked, the addict experienced a variety of distressing side effects in pursuit of morphine’s euphoric high. Symptoms of constipation, loss of sexual appetite, insomnia, and weight loss were common amongst users. The flesh of the addict, disfigured from frequent, repeated injections, was described romantically by the French novelist, Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest, as covered in “strange arabesques.”11 Most alarmingly, physicians discovered that attempts to discontinue morphine administration induced deadly, flu-like withdrawal symptoms. Nevertheless, morphine prescription and abuse persisted as unregulated pharmacies and apothecaries allowed habitués to refill their prescriptions indefinitely.
Though statistics concerning morphine addiction are elusive and largely suggestive, a vague sketch of the typical user can be apprehended from periodicals, medical publications, and governmental reports. Scholarly studies regarding the demographics of morphinomania in the nineteenth century have posited that the majority of known morphine addicts in England and the United States were female.12 At this moment, concrete statistics regarding the population of morphinomanes in nineteenth-century France are unavailable. However, period sources tend to support a similar hypothesis. In his study, Les Maladies épidémiques de l’esprit of 1887, Paul Regnard suggested that while statistics often report large numbers of morphine addiction among French men, the “experts” agree that female morphinomanes outnumber their male counterparts. Regnard attributed this discrepancy in the available data to the proclivity of women to conceal their addiction.13 These statements, though perhaps coloured by the gendered vision of the period, support the hypotheses of Davenport-Hines, Hodgson, Parssinen, and Zieger; morphinomania was a decidedly feminized issue in nineteenth-century France.
As a result, morphinomanes were frequently envisioned as young, fashionable Parisiennes, indulging in a novel and distinctly modern pleasure that Laurent Tailhade described as a “sin of luxe.”14 Satirically termed the narcotic “à la mode,”15 by one contemporary French observer, morphine addiction was so common amongst the bourgeoisie that elegant hypodermic needles and bejeweled, velvet-lined cases became fashionable accouterments. In 1887, one French physician adeptly summarized the fad, declaring:
I have often seen fashionable people with a regular arsenal of little injecting instruments, who, thanks to their medical men, had always at their disposal a solution of morphia strong enough to poison them. Ladies even, belonging to the most elegant classes of society, go so far as to show their good taste in the jewels, which they order to conceal a little syringe and artistically made bottles, which are destined to hold the solution which enchants them!16
In a similar anecdote, French author Alphonse Daudet described the transformation of his elegant female protagonist into the profligate morphinomane:
She’s become…How do you say?... A morphine addict…There’s a whole society like that….When they get together, each of these women, carrying their little silver cases with the needle, the poison…and wham! In the arm, in the leg…It doesn’t make you sleep…but one feels good.17
In 1887, Paul-Albert Besnard envisioned just such a fashionable pair of addicts in his etching with drypoint, Morphinomanes ou La Plume (fig. 2).
Paul-Albert Besnard, Morphine Addicts (Morphinomanes ou La Plume) (1887), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, etching with drypoint, 23.7 x 37cm. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Besnard’s engaging composition features two elegantly dressed Parisiennes enjoying a moment of leisure in an obscurely defined space, possibly the interior of a Parisian café or salon similar to the one described in Dubut de Laforest’s novel, Pathologie Sociale, where bourgeois habitués pass hypodermic needles around like cigars.18 Though Besnard’s title informs us of their predilection, the composition is otherwise missing the typical accouterments of addiction: the morphine vial, Pravaz needle and case are absent. Nevertheless, several compositional elements allude to the sensuous pleasures enjoyed by these fashionable morphine addicts. A fine crystal decanter sits on the table in the foreground, filled with an unknown and possibly illicit substance as the pair relaxes amidst a swirling cloud of smoke that recalls the languid atmosphere of an Oriental opium den. As Peter Parshall has proposed, the etching medium was unburdened by the strictures of academic convention of the nineteenth century, thus allowing artists and collectors to experiment with “shadowed kinds of subjects and indeterminate states of mind.” Besnard’s application of drypoint creates a feathery, blurred effect that creates a tangible sensation of altered consciousness: as the smoke envelops the two figures, their forms become fluid and indeterminate.
While the dark-haired figure on the left pointedly engages the spectator with her gaze, the figure on the right is preoccupied with an item in the spindly hand of her companion: a small feather. Its central position in the composition, as well as its allusion to the sensation of touch, indicates that the feather was perhaps meant as a suggestive stand-in for the morphine addict’s needle. These elements, the smoke, the decanter, and the feather coalesce to form a representation of morphinomania that emphasizes the pursuit of sensuous pleasure, mirroring contemporaneous literary representations that described the physical sensations of the morphine high in titillating detail.19
Besnard’s decision to place the two morphinomanes in a closed interior space creates the impression that we have intruded upon a private ritual. The gaze of the left-hand figure is direct, perhaps even challenging. These young women, temporarily independent of any masculine presence as they perform their clandestine sacrament, appear, if only momentarily, possessive of agency. Indeed, contemporary observers had quickly linked the rise of morphine addiction to the increased activity of the feminists and suffragettes in fin-de-siècle France. One observer neatly tied the feminine inclination towards the disease with their burgeoning desire for political mobility, stating that, "Women, some of which, for example, require exaltation with all their rights, have conquered, for a number of years, a singular law, all new, and very fatal I call the Right to morphine."20
Subsequently, Besnard’s Morphinomanes can be interpreted as a denunciation of feminine indulgence, the ephemeral pleasures of fashion, and the sensuous delights afforded by drugs and alcohol, as well as a warning as to the ultimate fate of women who operate independent of male control.
Posing a stark contrast to Besnard’s fashionable Parisian addicts is Eugène Grasset’s Morphinomane Plume (fig. 3),
Eugène Grasset, Morphinomane (1897), Philadelphia Museum of Art, color lithograph, image: 41.3 x 31.3cm. Photo: The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
completed nearly a decade later in 1897. In this startling image, Grasset envisioned the consummate physical and moral degradation of the morphine addict. The inclusion of Grasset’s Morphinomane in a print porfolio, published in 1897 by the French art critic and collector Ambroise Vollard, allowed Grasset to explore this otherwise taboo subject. The elegant portfolio containing a group of prints was a common mode of publication during the second half of the nineteenth century. Typically, these portfolio groupings were largely improvisational, intended to provide a sampling of unique work for the collector rather than a cohesive iconographic program. As the art critic Charles Blanc observed, prints were better stored away in a portfolio, rather than hung on a wall or kept under glass. 21 Inappropriate for public display, Grasset’s print would have been examined only occasionally in the privacy of the owner’s cabinet de travail, safe from the detrimental effects of light and the prying eyes of the family.
In contrast to Besnard’s version, which situates the morphinomane as participant in a decadent, albeit morally questionable pastime, Grasset’s lithograph is a startling image of abject degeneracy and sexual mania. The scene transpires in a confined interior space, defined by garish yellow walls and a chair upholstered in an absinthe green. The cropped picture plane, inspired by Japanese wood block prints, contributes to the claustrophobic sensation. Additionally, the vibrating colors, made possible by the lithographic medium, serve to heighten the intensity of the composition, creating an atmosphere that is grating in its urgency. On the left, a small blue morphine vial sits on a plain wooden end table. Nothing about this room suggests affluence; the furniture is simple and the texture in the yellow wallpaper creates the impression of mottled grime. By employing these compositional elements, Grasset creates an atmosphere of palpable dysphoria.
As in Besnard’s etching, the intrusion into a private interior composition suggests that the spectator has stumbled upon an illicit secret. In a gesture loaded with autoerotic suggestion, Grasset’s morphinomane lifts her simple white shirt and plunges the syringe into her exposed thigh, revealing her navy blue-striped stocking for a hint of fin de siécle naughtiness. As her hands and face contort in agony, her voluptuous, raven tresses cascade around her shoulders. Despite her gaunt, tortured visage, her thigh remains shapely and full, impressing the composition with a morbid sensualism. Unlike Besnard and Matignon, whose subjects are imagined in the midst of a euphoric, drug-induced ecstasy, Grasset elected to depict the moment of tension just prior to the release of intoxication. By selecting this moment, Grasset creates an atmosphere that is charged with erotic insinuation, as the morphinomane becomes an object of morbid fascination and repulsion in the eye of the spectator.
Like Besnard’s Morphinomanes ou La Plume, Grasset’s Morphinomane can be considered within a larger social discourse of the late nineteenth century that condemned females who engaged in pleasure-seeking behaviors. However, Besnard’s etching associates the morphine addict with the frivolous, sartorial indulgence of the Parisienne, whereas the autoerotic intimations of Grasset’s lithograph engage with another “social ill”: the solitary vice of masturbation. Like morphinism, masturbation was viewed as an alarming social epidemic that threatened respectable girls across France.22 Nicholas Francis Cooke, an English­­ doctor whose work was largely influenced by that of his French contemporaries, railed against masturbation, declaring that, “there is no young girl who should not be considered as already addicted or liable to become addicted to this habit.”23 In his book, Satan in Society, Cooke proposed that female boarding schools were hotbeds of licentious behavior where innocent girls, left to their own devices, developed a taste for solitary vice and a subsequent “aversion” to the “legitimate pleasures” of marriage and child-rearing.24 Similarly, the French physician, Dr. Lallemand, declared in his 1834 Treatise on Seminal Loses, that, “masturbation undermines the social body, releases or destroys the marriage bond, attacks the family, therefore the essential foundation of any society.”25 Masturbation was viewed as a repugnant vice that threatened French society by undermining the sacred institutions of marriage and the family.
The nineteenth-century discourse surrounding masturbation bears an especially striking resemblance to that of morphinomania, particularly because this “contagious vice”26 was viewed not simply as a moral concern, but also as a serious medical issue that could lead to anemia, malnutrition, asthemia of the muscles and nerves, and mental exhaustion. In his aforementioned publication, Cooke described the deteriorated physical condition of the woman who indulges in autoerotic behaviors:
The symptoms which enable us to recognize or suspect this crime are the following: A general condition of languor, weakness, and loss of flesh; the absence of freshness and beauty, of color from the complexion, of the vermillion from the lips, and whiteness from the teeth, which are replaced by a pale, lean, puffy, flabby, livid physiognomy; a bluish circle around the eyes, which are sunken, dull, and spiritless; a sad expression, dry cough, oppression and panting on the least exertion, the appearance of incipient consumption.27
The physical demeanor of the chronic masturbator bears a striking similarity to that of the morphinomane, further evidencing the conflation of these pleasure-seeking behaviors.28 Consequently, French pulp literature is rife with lascivious auto-erotic descriptions, such those found in Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest’s potboiler, Pathologie Sociale, whose morphine-addicted protagonist enjoys moments of “secret and incomparable ecstasy” as she penetrates her “sweet pink flesh”29 with the hypodermic needle.
In a similar fashion, Grasset has created a loaded image that would have simultaneously allured and repulsed fin-de-siècle viewers. His morphinomane is unquestionably one of morphine’s prisoners, reduced to a state of grotesque, animalistic dependency. Her simple white shift is the sole remnant of the purity she has surrendered in the pursuit of sensuous physical pleasures.
As France entered the 20th century, morphine decreased in popularity. The invention of aspirin provided doctors with a safer painkiller alternative, and morphine’s opiate cousin, heroin, became the addict’s darling. Despite this, the fin de siècle produced some of the most haunting and enduring images of drug addiction within the history of art. Paul-Albert Besnard’s etching, Morphinomanes ou La Plume (1887) and Eugène Grasset’s lithograph, Morphinomane (1897) provide a unique and indispensible lens with which to study the complex gender politics of late-nineteenth century France.
1 Terry M. Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820-1930 (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues Inc., 1983), 79.
2 Victorien du Saussay, La morphine, vices et passions des morphinomanes  (Paris: Albert Mericant, 1906). Qtd. in Barbara Hodgson, In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines (New York: Firefly Books (US.) Inc.: 2001), 8.
3 Sertürner was the first chemist to successful isolate plant alkaloid. Following his discovery, several additional alkaloids would be isolated, including the psychoactive ingredient of coca leaves, cocaine. See Richard Davenport-Hines, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics (London, New York: Norton, 2002), 28.
4 The invention of the hypodermic needle is frequently credited to Charles Pravaz in France (1851) and Alexander Wood in England (1853). See Davenport-Hines, Hodgson, Parssinen.
5 Davenport-Hines,The Pursuit of Oblivion, 99.
6 Ibid, 107.
7 Ibid, 101.
8 Susan Zieger, Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (Amherst, CT: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 132­­­–133.
9 Eduard Levinstein, Morbid Craving for Morphium, trans. Charles Harrer (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1878) Qtd. In Parssinen, 86.
10 Davenport-Hines,The Pursuit of Oblivion, 101.
11 Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest, Pathologie sociale (Paris: P. Dupont, 1897).
12 After an examination of English survey data, Terry Parssinen concluded that the average user was a middle-aged woman of means, whose habit would have likely begun during the treatment of a pre-existing medical complaint. Similarly, Barbara Hodgson proposed­­­ that between 1880 and 1913, 60 to 70% of American morphine and opium users were female.
13 Paul Regnard. Les Maladies épidémiques de l’esprit: sorcellerie, magnétisme, morphinisme, délire des grandeurs (Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, 1887).
14 Laurent Tailhade, La “Noire idole”: etude sur la morphinomanie (Paris: A. Messein, 1907).
15 Jules Claretie, La vie à Paris:1880–1910 (Paris: G. Charpentier et E. Fasquelle, 1895).
16 Dr. Zambaco, qtd. in Hodgson, In the Arms of Morpheus, 94.
17 Alphonse Daudet, ibid., 93.
18 See Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest, Pathologie sociale.
19 The composition would have likewise appealed to admirers of the Symbolist movement, which advocated the pursuit of artistic transcendence through sensory experience. The poet Arthur Rimbaud suggested that this state could be achieved through “the unsettling of all the senses.” See Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 138.
20 See Jules Claretie, La vie à Paris: 1880–1910.
21 Peter Parshall, A Darker Side of Light: Prints, Privacy, and Possession,” in The Darker Side of Light, Arts of Privacy 1850–1900 (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2009), 4.
22 Bram Dijsktra, Idols of Perversity: Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 64–82.
23 Nicholas Francis Cooke, qtd. in Dijkstra,Idols of Perversity, 68.
24 Ibid., 74.
25 Dr. Lallemand, qtd. in P. Brenot, “Les médecins français et la masturbation avant 1945,” Sexologies 16, (July, 2007), 212.
26 Cooke, qtd. in Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity, 74.
27 Ibid.
28 Interestingly, morphine was also often frequently prescribed to treat neuralgia, a unique physical ailment of the fin de siècle that was believed to be caused by excessive “self-abuse.” See Davenport-Hines, 109–110.
29 See Jean-Louis Dubut de Laforest, Pathologie sociale.
Armstrong, Carol. Manet Manette. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Brenot, P. “Les médecins français et la masturbation avant 1945.” Sexologies 16 (July, 2007): 212–218.
Claretie, Jules. La vie à Paris:1880–1910. Paris: G. Charpentier et E. Fasquelle, 1895.
Coppier, André Charles. Les eaux-fortes de Besnard. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1920.
Dorra, Henri, ed. Symbolist Art Theories. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.
Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Dubut de Laforest, Jean-Louis. Pathologie sociale. Paris: P. Dupont, 1897.
Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines.New York: Firefly Books (U.S.) Inc, 2001.
Lombroso, Cesare. Le crime, causes et remèdes. Paris: Schleicher frères, 1899.
Regnard, Paul. Les Maladies épidémiques de l’espirt; sorcellerie, magnétisme, morphinisme, délire des grandeurs. Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, 1887.
Riant, Aimé. Les irresponsibles devant la justice. Paris: J.-B. Baillière et fils, 1888.
Tailhade, Laurent. La “Noire idole”: etude sur la morphinomanie. Paris: A. Messein, 1907.
Parshall, Peter. “A Darker Side of Light: Prints, Privacy, and Possession.” The Darker Side of Light, Arts of Privacy 1850–1900. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2009.
Parssinen, Terry M. Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820-1930. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc, 1983.
Zieger, Susan. Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature. Amherst, CT: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008.
Digital Resources
Illuminating Addiction is a Tumblr exploring representations of women, illness, addiction, and death in the visual culture of the long nineteenth century.
Below is a YouTube video via the Museum of Modern Art which demonstrates the lithographic process.
Below is a YouTube video via the Museum of Modern Art which demonstrates the intaglio print processes, including etching.
Natalia Angeles Vieyra
MA Candidate, Temple University

Natalia Angeles Vieyra is a designer, blogger, and art historian residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She received her BFA from the University of the Arts in Graphic Design with a minor in the History of Visual Art. Currently, she is finishing her MA in Art History at Temple University. Her research primarily encompasses nineteenth-century and feminist topics.

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