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Talking Points: Hannah Halliwell

Dr. Hannah Halliwell's brilliant new book, Art, Medicine, and Femininity: Visualising the Morphine Addict in Paris, 1870-1914, offers novel insight into the role of artistic depictions of drug addiction in defining cultural understandings of morphine use and addiction in the French Third Republic. This analysis is contextualized in the socio-politics of the era, but its theoretical and methodological contributions to the field warrant consideration and implementation by scholars of drug use and drug history in any era. Art, Medicine, and Femininity is available for purchase directly from McGill-Queen's University Press and various regional booksellers as of January 2024

We had the great pleasure of asking Dr. Halliwell a few questions about her book:

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself. 

I am a lecturer in nineteenth-century French art history at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. My three main research interests are how the body appears in art, how addiction and drug use is visualised, and the interactions between art and the medical sector. I am an art historian by discipline, although I would describe my research as interdisciplinary.

What got you interested in the history of drugs, alcohol, and pharmacy?

I have always been drawn to the representation of the female body in art and its correlation to social and political change – how art impacts society, and vice versa. In particular, I’m interested in the representations of female figures that challenge the so-called norm via political beliefs, sexuality, or appearance, to name a few. Alcohol and drug use have been and continue to be significant to social and political change, whilst often intercepting matters relating to gender, stereotypes, and discrimination. Looking back, it seems inevitable that my art-historical research into the female body and society would end up fusing with the history of drugs, particularly since, as my book shows, no cultural sector feminised morphine use more than artists working in late nineteenth-century Paris. 

What motivated you to write this book specifically? 

Art, Medicine, and Femininity is based on my PhD research, which is when I first became interested in the history of drugs. Around the time I decided to pursue a PhD in art history, I came across an exhibition that had been at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles the previous year: Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880-1914. It seemed a fascinating exhibition on a subject matter I hadn’t come across before. Yet very few artworks on display corresponded explicitly to the ‘morphine’ aspect of the exhibition. I did not know much about morphine use in Paris during this period, but I did know that art interacts with and comments on society; I was optimistic, therefore, that other artists must have engaged in this topic if it was one of social significance. The more I researched and the more images I found, the more I realised the important role artists played in creating a false narrative about morphine addiction. During the final stages of my PhD, I heard about McGill-Queen University Press’ Intoxicating Histories series. And the rest, they say, is (art) history!

Explain your book in a way that your bartender won’t find boring. 

I would ask said bartender the admittedly problematic question of what does someone addicted to drugs look like? Whatever their answer, the chances are they might visualise someone in their mind before responding. My book, Art, Medicine, and Femininity, is interested in that visualisation – why and how that visualisation appears. I explore the visualisation of morphine addiction specifically, which began in and proliferates from Paris in the 1880s. The book argues that this visualisation was the first time in Western visual culture that artists cohesively and repeatedly used a set of recurring characteristics to signify drug addiction. Artists pulled inspiration from art history and the medical sector, conflating historical images of prostitutes and social outsiders with medical knowledge about morphine use that was being published in newspapers and books.

One of the greatest things about art historians is we always have pictures in our books (and this book has plenty of images, including 12 beautifully printed colour plates). I’d show the bartender some of these images. Perhaps they would realise that almost all the images include only female figures as morphine addicts. “A-ha!” I would say, “don’t be fooled into thinking art reflects reality.” Men – indeed, male medical professionals – made up the highest proportion of morphine users in late nineteenth-century France. The book considers the reasons why artists feminised morphine addiction, as well as the impact those artworks had and continue to have. From clever marketing strategies and boosting newspapers sales, to commenting on lesbianism, feminism, and the doctor-patient relationship, the book explores numerous factors that relate to artists’ feminisation of morphine use.

Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project? 

I was surprised by how many artworks I found showing morphine use(rs). It was a difficult job narrowing this down to 50 illustrations for the book. I had always hoped to find a few new images, and to develop the minimal research on the better-known images, but I was not expecting to find these images to be as far-reaching. Nearly half a million people viewed Georges Moreau de Tours’ La Morphine painting (the focus of my first chapter) when it was displayed in Paris in 1886! I ended up researching a range of artistic media, from caricatures to oil paintings, and an array of artists, from famous artists like Pablo Picasso to anonymous illustrators. I find it fascinating that the figure of the morphine addict was depicted relatively similarly across art medium and function – erotic novels, medical texts, international exhibitions, avant-garde lithographs, and so on.

What do you think is the most important takeaway from your book?

I think the most important takeaway from my book is the role art plays in historical narratives about drug use. Artworks cannot be understood simply as illustrations or passive commentary on social events. As I note in the book’s conclusion, “art spans global history and culture, but so do drug use and addiction – neither are autonomous, both impact and influence society.” I hope readers who are less familiar with art history consider the significance of visual culture – as something that plays an active role in society. Similarly, I hope art historians who read the book note the current lack of art-historical engagement with alcohol and drugs history. I focus only on images created in France between 1870 and 1914, but a similar methodology could be used across period and geographical location. There is huge scope for future research.

Has this research led on to your next endeavour – what else are you working on? 

Yes! This research has opened up a couple of new avenues for me. In the book’s epilogue, I explore the differences in how morphine use and opium use are represented in French visual culture. I’m now interested in the reasons for these differences, and how those reasons relate to political, national, and colonial processes. Similar to the methodologies used in Art, Medicine, and Femininity, this new research explores a range of artistic media, from illustrations in early twentieth-century travel magazines to institutionally-approved oil paintings. But there is a new element for me here, too – the material culture of opiate paraphernalia. I’m looking into how the hypodermic syringe and opium pipe were manufactured, advertised, and perceived in nineteenth-century French society, and how this material corresponds, or not, to artworks. I’m looking forward to presenting these ideas at the 2024 ADHS conference in Buffalo.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field? 

What I hope for is a continually increasing interdisciplinarity in the field of drugs history. As an art historian, I have been welcomed with open arms into drugs history; the conversations I have had with drugs historians have strengthened my research and broadened my perspectives. Cross-disciplinary conversations are so important, and I hope the future of the field is filled with even more of this.


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