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“How to Paint a Morphine Addict”: Notes from the “Substance Use and Abuse in the L

Updated: Aug 29

Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from Hannah Halliwell, a third-year History of Art PhD student at the University of Birmingham, England. In it, she describes the work she presented at the “Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century” conference, held last September, and her winning entry into the Creative Competition. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @hanhalliwell. Enjoy!

Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century was a two-day conference at Edge Hill University, England, on 13th-14th September 2018. It was an interdisciplinary symposium with fascinating talks on topics ranging from alcoholism and cocaine use to opium, logistics and concepts of addiction. A personal highlight was being named the Creative Competition winner.

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Approaching Edge Hill University for Day 2 of Substance Use and Abuse

As I neared the end of the second year of my History of Art PhD at the University of Birmingham, I realized I had missed the Call for Papers deadline for the Substance Use and Abuse conference. Whilst researching attendance details on the conference website, the words “Creative Competition” caught my eye. This was a way to get involved with the conference, although it was a far cry from the usual 300-word abstract submission. Regardless, I saw it as an opportunity to present my research on visual representations of the morphinomane (morphine addict)[1] in French fin-de-siècle society (c.1880-1910) in a new way.

The task: “Your research in one image.”

Images are the crux of an art historian’s research. What can these images tell us? Or, more specifically to my approach, how do artists’ representations of people, events and actions help us to understand contemporary perceptions of such people, events and actions? I have spent the last two years discovering images of morphine use in turn-of-the-twentieth-century French visual culture (and this is undoubtedly essential to my research), but it is my analysis of these works that is most significant. To simply produce another image to add to this collection disregards my thesis argument and the importance of the historical moment. I identified recurring motifs in morphinomane visual culture and thought about the unconvincing representation of morphine use in these artworks. I considered the artistic process – how was the reality of an addiction to morphine transformed into an artwork that could be presented at the Salon, the official art exhibition in Paris for the majority of the nineteenth century?

Thus, my Creative Competition entry was a tongue-in-cheek guide titled How to paint a morphine addict for the French fin-de-siècle annual Salon.

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Accompanying caption and my entry on display at the conference

The title is accompanied by four prescriptive steps. Each step correlates to its respective image and simultaneously highlights crucial themes in my doctoral research. The work not only shows an imagined artistic process – from the scarred, male body to an idealised, female figure (see close ups below) – it also mimics the interdisciplinary nature of my research. My thesis examines representations of morphine users across a variety of mediums – from oil paintings and newspaper caricatures to wax teaching models and novel illustrations – and how these images operate across boundaries by influencing and taking influence from medical journals, the Salon, newspapers and novels. Ultimately, I argue that images of morphine use reference wider debates on feminism, class, diseases and neuroses, lesbianism and prostitution.

Each of the four stages began as an engraving by the Bookhout Brothers, which appeared in H. H. Kane’s Drugs that Enslave: The Opium, Morphine, Chloral and Hashisch Habits of 1881 (CC Wellcome Collection). The image is untouched in the first stage, but is increasingly manipulated with gouache, textiles and paper as the stages progress. The repeated use of this medical drawing represents the popularisation of medicine in late-nineteenth-century France and its increasing ubiquity in art and literature. The Bookhout Brothers’ engraving shows the (perhaps exaggerated) effects of hypodermically injecting morphine into the body. My research analyses artists’ sanitization of the corporeal effects of morphine use in artworks made for non-medical audiences. Thus, the second stage is a censoring of all corporeal signs of morphine addiction.

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Stages 1 and 2 – painting over a printed copy of the engraving to idealize the body

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Stages 3 and 4 – adding colour, clothing and a Parisian setting to create the final stage

The third stage introduces one of my key lines of enquiry: the hypervisibility of the female morphinomane and, in turn, the invisibility of the male body. Significantly, this intermediary stage transforms the male figure to a female figure. I investigate why artists only represented the morphinomane as female when, according to several statistical studies conducted at the time, the majority of French morphinomanes were men. Morphine was continually feminized and artists perpetuated these ideas. Artists’ references to morphine addiction as fashionable and bourgeois was instrumental to the feminization of morphine paraphernalia and its users. This can be seen in the final stage of my entry.

Artists almost always romanticized and sexualized morphine addiction, portraying female figures as pleasure-seekers, as vectors spreading morphine use among friends and not victims of addiction. The repeated yet manipulated use of the Bookhout Brothers’ engraving represents the continuous reusing of factual and fictitious visual and written material on morphine addiction in France at the turn of the twentieth century. Ultimately, How to paint a morphine addict for the French fin-de-siècle annual Salon comments on the circulation of (mis-)information, which significantly contributed to artists’ depictions of morphinomanes as generally idealized, often bourgeois and always female.

This post comes with thanks to Laura and Andy for organizing the fantastic Substance Use and Abuse conference and Midlands4Cities who funded my conference trip and continue to fund my PhD.


1: Morphinomane was the most commonly used word used in the French language at the time to describe those addicted to morphine.

#19thcentury #Conferencereview #morphine


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