6 Famous Artists Who Struggled with Alcoholism

Famous artists, like other members of society, are susceptible to many vices. However, one of the most over-indulged of these habits, among some of art history’s leading figures, is alcohol.

Oct 25, 2020By John Sewell, BA & MA Art History, University of Birmingham
the hangover alcoholic artists
The Hangover (Suzanne Valadon) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888, via Harvard Museums, Cambridge (left); with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet, 1882, via the Courtauld Insitute of Art, London (right)

 

Going as far back as Ancient Greece, many famous artists have paid reverence to the powers of drink in their work. Whether carving into marble a scene of Dionysus pouring jugs of wine or simply capturing the day-to-day nightlife of bustling city bars in oils on canvas, over the centuries, many artists have celebrated alcohol’s ability to induce a state of creative flow and provide the social lubricant which fuels so much enjoyment in so many people’s lives.

 

However, the unfortunate truth is that many artists throughout the history of art have failed to prevent their enjoyment of alcohol from becoming a seriously unhealthy addiction. The mental struggle that comes with being an artist, coupled with the often-hedonistic lifestyle which comes with success (or failure) can be a dangerous cocktail that leads them to spiral into alcoholism. Here’s a list of six of the most famous artists in history who have had to battle with their addiction to alcohol, from Van Gogh to Pollock.

Frans Hals: Famous Artist Of The Dutch Golden Age

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Portrait of the Artist, After Frans Hals, about 1581-1666, via Indianapolis Museum of Art

 

Frans Hals is often considered one of the most famous artists of the Dutch Golden Age. His characterful portraits of noblemen and paupers alike have provided onlookers with an insight into the lives of 17th century Netherlandish folk ever since. However, while Hals may be known for his depictions of boisterous drunkards; it is a lesser-known fact that he was himself known to have had a problematic relationship with alcohol too.

 

His alcoholism was first detailed by Arnold Houbraken, an art historian who was born just a few years before Hals’ death. He described Hals as being ‘filled to the gills every evening.’ And it was also a running joke among his contemporaries that he would be more often found in a tavern than in his studio. 

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This may account for the intimate accuracy with which Hals was apparently able to capture a state of drunkenness in oils on canvas. If it was indeed the case that he spent the majority of his evenings imbibing beer and wine in the bars of Haarlem, then it’s likely that he would have been well acquainted with the other motley members of society who also enjoyed a tipple.

 

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Peeckelhaering (The Funny Reveler) by Frans Hals, 1866, via ia Museum Hessen Kassel

 

However, since the 1800s there has been an attempt among scholars of art history to dispel the myth that Hals was an alcoholic. It has been argued that this was an imagined description of the man based more on the content of his subject matter than any actual historical fact. Hals’ contemporary Jan Steen is another painter whose reputation as a drunk often bore a heavy influence on perceptions of his work.

 

The historian Seymore Slive made the point that just because a painter is able to effectively capture a drunkard’s visage and personality, they aren’t automatically an alcoholic themselves. However, it is also likely, if not certain, that Hals did spend a lot of time in the pub, drinking strong beer and socializing with people from all walks of life. So, it can’t really be discounted as a reason for his subject matter. 

 

After all, with beer still being tastier and safer than water in the 17th century Netherlands, the chances are he wasn’t the only one to be found inebriated more often than not. 

 

Vincent Van Gogh: Tortured Post-Expressionist Artist

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Self-Portrait with Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1886, via The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh is a name unfortunately synonymous with mental instability. His famous episode in which he cut off a part of his ear is among the most infamous in the history of art, and it serves as an unfortunate reminder of the darkness which came hand in hand with his creative genius. However, little is often made of the impact of alcohol on his life and the particularly damaging relationship that he (and many other artists of his era) endured with it. 

 

Of course, absinthe, or ‘The Green Fairy’ as it was sometimes known contemporaneously, was a popular drink among artistic types in 19th century Paris – where Van Gogh made his home as a young man. Van Gogh was known to be a fan of the drink and several of his paintings used it as subject matter. One time he even drunkenly lobbed a glass of the liquor over his friend and fellow famous artist, Paul Gauguin

 

Gauguin’s diary recounts how he dodged the missile and proceeded to bundle Vincent out of the bar and into his apartment, where he subsequently passed out. Van Gogh then awoke in the morning and said to Gauguin, “My dear Gauguin, I have a vague memory that I offended you last evening.”

 

While this is the sort of amusing anecdote that might still be cause for laughter among friends today, it also demonstrates the excess of Van Gogh’s drinking habits and the impact it had on his behavior, relationships and health.  

 

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Le café de nuit (The Night Café) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, via Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven

 

He wrote to his beloved brother, Theo, shortly after leaving Paris that, when you’re someone who thinks a thousand things in half an hour, “the only thing that comforts and distracts – in my case – is to stun oneself by taking a stiff drink.” While in another letter to his brother a year later, Vincent acknowledged that his alcohol abuse may ‘one of the great causes of my madness.’

 

In the end, scenes such as his ‘Night Café’ (1888), which we often think of as cozy, almost sleepy depictions of late-eighteenth-century idle, are actually tinged with a greater sadness than we may ordinarily have placed on them. The anonymous patrons slumped beneath the wobbly glow of the lights, were characters Van Gogh knew as well as any other subject he painted. After all, he himself was on one of them.

 

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec: 19th-Century French Artist

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Portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, via Sotheby’s 


Another fan of Absinthe, famous artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was also known to indulge heavily in strong alcoholic beverages as he made his way from bar to bar in Paris’ Montmartre. In fact, we know that he and Van Gogh even shared a drink together from time to time, given Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh sipping away at a glass of absinthe. 

 

On one occasion, the pair were partaking in a drinking session that ended up with Lautrec offering to duel on Van Gogh’s behalf following a dispute with an equally drunken Belgian man who had disrespected his Netherlandish friend.

However, the pair didn’t just share drinks. Lautrec too had mental health problems, though his problems largely came because of his physical disabilities, which were the result of an abusive father and inbreeding among his aristocratic family. 

 

He was notoriously short as his legs had failed to develop after his teenage years, which meant his head, arms and torso were disproportionate to the lower half of his body. Aside from the obvious internal psychological impact of such a disability, this infliction was cause for Lautrec to be bullied and castigated by many of his contemporaries – a theme of his existence that ceased disappear so long as he lived.

 

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Vincent van Gogh by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887, via The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

 

Lautrec began drinking as a means of bolstering his self-confidence, with the help of a little beer and wine. Though he was soon known to be one of the most prolific drinkers in the hedonistic circles in which he found himself. He enjoyed absinthe and cognac; and apparently, he would often start his day with a glass of rum. 

 

He spent so much time drinking in bars that he is supposed to have been the inventor of a number of famous cocktails, which also give an insight into the drinks which he was fond of. Both ‘The Earthquake’ (2 ½ ounces of Cognac with a dash of absinthe) and ‘The Maiden Blush’ (absinthe, bitters, red wine and champagne) were his inventions and appear to be simply made of all his preferred drinks in a single glass.

 

Ultimately, however, Lautrec did manage to work as a relatively high functioning alcoholic for the majority of his adult life. He painted prolifically and would have lived longer had it not been for him contracting syphilis – the result of another of his vices. 

 

Francis Bacon: Expressionist Nightmare Painter

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Francis Bacon in his Studio by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1971, via Francis Bacon’s Website

 

Francis Bacon is a famous artist known for his nightmarish paintings of contorted and tortured-looking bodies, set in enigmatic, flesh-colored scenes. What’s more, his studio, which can be seen today as it was left when he died, demonstrates the chaotic nature of his thought-process and artistic practice. So, it comes as no surprise that he was a man who faced psychological and physical troubles in his life beyond art. 

 

To many of his London-based acquaintances, Bacon was known to be a lively member of the Soho social life. He fitted in with the bohemian, party-going socialites who frequented the notoriously hedonistic area of the West End. 

 

His friend and companion John Edwards once quipped of him that “he was marvelous company, good fun and a great drinking companion.” While he was also known to shout, “We come from nothing and go into nothing,” as he freely poured Champagne for anyone who happened to be within arms’ reach at any one of his favorite haunts. 

 

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Portrait of Francis Bacon by Neil Libbert, 1984, via National Portrait Gallery, London

 

However, as much as he was a sociable drinker, he was also a habitual one. He would paint during the day, before heading to the pub for a few drinks. Most nights this would progress into drinking in bars, restaurants, casinos, and nightclubs and he would return early in the morning for a couple of hours sleep before he would then again wake up and begin the cycle to which he had become accustomed. 

 

One only has to watch the Melvyn Bragg documentary, about his South Bank Show in 1985, to not only see Bacon drinking heavily on camera but also the effects that his copious drinking had had on his speech and appearance. His rosy red cheeks and puffy face serve as unavoidable reminders that his taste for wine was more an addiction than a connoisseurial interest.

 

Ultimately though, his doctors never diagnosed Bacon as an alcoholic – possibly owing in part to his own assertion that it did him more good (both creatively and artistically) than it did him harm. However, recent analysis of his medical records suggests that he was diagnosed with a number of issues, such as peripheral neuropathy, which are commonly exacerbated among patients who are diagnosed as alcoholics. 

Joan Mitchell: American Abstract Expressionist Painter

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Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio photographed by Robert Freson, 1983, via Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York

 

Joan Mitchell is one of the most famous artists of the abstract expressionist movement which swept America in the 1960s. She was known for her big, bold explosions of color and movement dashed across the canvas and her close personal relationships with many of its other most important artists meant that she was right at the heart of its fast-paced and dynamic emergence into the popular consciousness. 

 

However, like many of her fellow artists in this group, she was known to be a serious alcoholic. Much like her artistic hero, Van Gogh, she battled with depression and alcohol dependency all her life.

 

Mitchell was, by all accounts, a naturally outspoken and lively personality. She would say it how she saw it and would have no time for the “polite formulas” of modern American life which might have limited her professional options had she not fought so hard to ignore them. 

 

However, her tendency to push back against society and its norms would often come to a head when she had been drinking – which she did regularly and heavily. She would get into fistfights with friends and lovers, or shout at them in expletive-ridden rants across crowded New York dining rooms.

 

ladybug joan mitchell
Ladybug by Joan Mitchell, 1957, via MoMA, New York

 

Some have argued that Mitchell’s desire to reject such societal norms was not just the result of inebriation, rather that it was her way of pushing back against the deep-rooted sexism she faced at the hand of her own father – a man who had no qualms in letting her know that she was called Joan because he had already penciled John into her birth certificate before she was born.

 

In reality, the psychological trauma of this upbringing, combined with both her desire to break down gender roles and her close relationships with other debauched artists and creatives, meant that drink served as a means of self-medication for the ills of her own health and society at large. 

 

However, Mitchell’s biographer, Patricia Albers, has said of her than “in painting as in living, she was a high-functioning alcoholic with an astonishing capacity for mental and physical concentration.” This meant that, for the most part, her alcoholism had little direct impact on the production of her work. Like many alcoholic artists, the fine line between creative excellence and social non-conformity, fuelled by alcohol, was one that Mitchell was able to navigate.

 

Mitchell’s addictive personality was the ultimate cause of her death. She had been a heavy smoker just as much as a heavy drinker, and after several cancer scares, she eventually succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 66, in 1992.

 

Jackson Pollock: Famous Artist Of Abstract Expressionism

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Painter Jackson Pollock, cigarette in Mouth, dropping paint onto canvas photographed by Martha Holmes, via Sotheby’s

 

Sadly, however, there is one artist who was not able to live a life in which he could be both a successful artist and a deeply troubled alcoholic. That man is another famous artist of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and indeed a close friend of Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock.

 

In fact, Pollock’s most successful years as a painter came in the brief window where his wife, and famous artist in her own right, Lee Krasner, had been able to find him a doctor who was able to help him put a brief stop to his drinking habit. 

 

Pollock was killed in a car crash while driving under the influence along a road just under a mile from his home from where he had set off. The accident came as Krasnder had separated with him owing to his increasing infidelity and alcohol dependence. She had traveled to Europe to get away from Pollock, who had become involved with a much younger artist, Ruth Kligman, who was in her twenties.

 

For a while, Pollock was seemingly only able to find solace in the Cedar Bar near his home. He and his friends would stay until closing time, before regularly finding themselves in brawls with other punters as they made their way home. It seemed that despite his apparent success on the global art scene, he was unable to tame the demons which dominated his consciousness. 

 

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One: Number 31, 1950 by Jackson Pollock, 1950, via MoMA, New York

 

Pollock too had seemingly ended his career as a painter, as his dependency on drink and the disillusionment from his practice which came with it left him with no artistic direction or motivation.

 

One night in 1956, Pollock, who was 44 at the time, had been drinking with Ruth and a number of other friends when they decided to drive into the night in his Oldsmobile convertible. However, fuelled by alcohol, an accident was almost inevitable and Pollock ended up careering straight into a tree and flipping the car – killing himself and his friend Edith Metzger.


Amazingly, Krasner mourned her husband as if he had been a saint. She immediately returned from France to attend his funeral and spent the rest of her life managing the sale of his estate to museums and galleries around the world. She would eventually set up a foundation which shared both their names, and which continues to support emerging artists to fund their practice, acquire supplies, and rent space to work.

 



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By John SewellBA & MA Art History, University of BirminghamJohn holds both a BA and an MA in Art History from the University of Birmingham, UK. His academic research focussed on nineteenth and early-twentieth century depictions of narcotics use, addiction and race-relations. However, his interests extend far beyond this; and his work covers an array of topics from many different periods and locations around the world. Alongside writing, he is also the founder of Eazyl - an online art marketplace for emerging artists which charges no commission fees.