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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 3, 2011

The Triumph of Bacchus

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):8-9. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.185

[Bacchus] discovered the juice of the grape and introduced it to mankind, stilling thereby each grief that mortals suffer from . . . and sleep that brings forgetfulness of daily ills, . . . ’twas he that gave the vine to man, sorrow's antidote.

—Euripides, 407 BC, The Bacchae1(p7,8)

Gin cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught/Makes human race a Prey. It enters by a deadly Draught/And steals our Life away.

—The Reverend James Townley, Hogarth's Gin Lane, 17512(p147)

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez's (1599-1660) painting of Bacchus is his most popular mythological work. Its naming varies with the perspective of the viewer. Some emphasize the feast itself or view it as homage to the god who brought the gift of wine to humankind. Others focus on the merry inebriants and refer to it as Los Borrachos (The Drunkards). Yet these names provide no clue as to why Velázquez, the newly appointed royal portraitist, chose this particular mythological theme. Was it chosen because long ago Bacchus is said to have grown up in Spain and later to have conquered Spain and ruled there?3,4 Is it, in a sense, despite its mythological subject, a history painting, perhaps completed to prove Velázquez's range beyond portraiture to more senior court painters who may have been competitors?4 Unlike his royal portraits, its earthiness reinstates his earlier emphasis on realistic scenes of daily life before becoming, at age 29 years, the chief court painter to young King Philip IV of Spain, who was 6 years his junior. Perhaps the young king identified with Bacchus and wished to emphasize the ruler's historic role in offering benefits to the people. If so, wine proved to be a mixed blessing. In this painting, unlike the traditional rendering of myth, the ancient story is brought to life among contemporary people, Spanish peasants. For this, his first mythological painting, Velázquez received a hundred ducats in payment by royal decree in 1629.4

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), Spanish. The Triumph of Bacchus (The Drinkers), 1628-1629. Oil on canvas, 165 cm × 225 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain (http://www.museodelprado.es/en/education/resources/audioguias/el-triunfo-de-baco-o-los-borrachos). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), Spanish. The Triumph of Bacchus (The Drinkers), 1628-1629. Oil on canvas, 165 cm × 225 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain (http://www.museodelprado.es/en/education/resources/audioguias/el-triunfo-de-baco-o-los-borrachos). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Born in Seville, Spain, Velázquez apprenticed with Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), an artist and scholar who recognized his exceptional talent and skill. Pacheco, later his father-in-law, not only taught him technical skills but also exposed him to history and literature, providing him with a broad education. The Triumph of Bacchus illustrates Velázquez's skill and knowledge. Its focus is on Bacchus' gift of wine and its capacity to comfort those faced with the hardships of daily life (epigraph). The lighting is reminiscent of Caravaggio's use of light and dark to articulate the participants for the viewer. Bacchus, the god closest to men, brightens the lives of ordinary people and cavorts with them. He sits on a wine barrel, dressed in classical style. His creamy complexion, garland of vine leaves, and tunic, along with the crystal glass of white wine held by his companion, who rests behind him, distinguishes him from the mortal men who celebrate. The god's cool unadorned light skin stands out from the dark background and his ruddy followers. The group of peasant drinkers who surround him and his helper are shown in shadow. One cradles in his hands a shallow drinking bowl filled with wine. These jolly men, described by some as picaros (clever rogues who live by their wits), the subjects of picaresque novels, vary in age and occupation. Behind them, a man, possibly a beggar who seeks a drink, doffs his hat. Bacchus, seemingly absentmindedly, crowns a soldier, who wears a dagger and kneels before him, with a garland. The Triumph of Bacchus is full of emotional energy and movement, providing a certain satirical charm in depicting the men's short-lived escape from their hardships. Composer Benjamin Britten was drawn to the story of Bacchus and put it to music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQZlOuf0wdo&feature=related).

Bacchus, Dionysus in Greek mythology, was the son of Jupiter and the mortal Semele, daughter of the king of Thebes.3 Juno, jealous of her husband's affair with a mortal, sought to destroy her rival and appeared in disguise as her maid. She whispered to Semele to ask Jupiter to appear in his true form, as a god, when he came to her bedchamber. Tricked into promising to grant Semele's every wish, Jupiter reluctantly appeared in his true form as lightning in a storm; thus, pregnant Semele died in a burst of flame. Yet Bacchus was saved and nurtured in an artificial womb created in the thigh of Jupiter. At birth, he was sent to a far land (possibly Spain), out of Juno's sight, and raised by nymphs and satyrs. Half mortal, as an adult, he conquered the known world. On his return to Greece, Bacchus was seduced by a king's wife, who offered to sleep with him if he provided a special gift to her husband. The gift to be bestowed was wine, chosen to make the king forget his anger at her betrayal; thus, wine came to humanity to accommodate a queen's lust. Bacchus offered the first grape plants for cultivation to help a poor but noble farmer who he befriended. All went well for the farmer until some of his neighbors got drunk and, thinking they had been poisoned, killed him, perhaps the first illustration of the mixed blessing that alcohol brings to humanity. Bacchus too was sometimes driven mad by its excessive use. The revels of the followers of Bacchus (Dionysus) are the genesis of ancient Greek theater, both comedies and tragedies, that were celebrated in 2 annual festivals in Athens each year, the Lenaia and the Dionysia, where Dionysus was honored by the presentation of plays.

Excessive use of alcohol was nowhere more problematic than in England in the century following Velázquez's death. In the 1720s, a new kind of reckless nihilistic drinking emerged, centered on the consumption of inexpensive gin, the English name for Dutch genever, a distilled alcohol flavored with juniper that was far more potent than wine. The gin craze was facilitated when new King William from Holland ascended the throne. When grain prices collapsed after plentiful harvests, grain distillation was encouraged as a means of support for landowners. Anyone was allowed to distill spirits from British grain.

The gin craze assumed a feminine identity as Mother Geneva or Mother Gin because women had easy access to gin and often were gin merchants. Unlike beer, which was sold mainly in alehouses and taverns that women did not frequent, gin was cheap and readily available to them. The consequences of abuse were increasingly apparent, leading to successive waves of public agitation over the gin trade. Parliament enacted measures to deal with the gin problem in 1726, 1728-1729, 1735-1738, and 1748-1751.5,6 Opponents and supporters of Mother Gin waged a propaganda war through sermons, ballads, satirical verse, petitions, posters, and prints. The most dramatic legislation was the 1736 Gin Act, rushed through Parliament in a few weeks, which sought to close down the gin trade overnight by introducing taxes and license fees. At that time, there were 7000 retailers of gin in the London suburbs, not counting those in the city itself.2 The impact of abuse was linked to a documented drop in the birth rate and many defective births. The populace responded to regulation with funeral processions for Madame Geneva, and for a time, gin was sold using pseudonyms such as the Ladies Delight and Cuckold's Comfort. The act caused such protest and opposition that it had to be abandoned and subsequently was repealed in 1743. As a result, by 1750 the number of retailers doubled.

When war ended on the continent, thousands of soldiers returned to London and took to drink and thievery. Magistrate Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) aroused public concern in An Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers. His colleague William Hogarth (1697-1764) printed Gin Lane (Figure) and Beer Street to illustrate the effects of alcohol, especially the detrimental effects of gin. Their joint efforts aroused support for the new regulations in the Gin Act passed in the summer of 1751; it doubled the tax, enhanced police authority, and rewarded informers and resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of gin shops.

William Hogarth (1697-1764), English. Gin Lane, 1751. Engraving. British Museum, London, Great Britain. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, New York, NY.

William Hogarth (1697-1764), English. Gin Lane, 1751. Engraving. British Museum, London, Great Britain. © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Beer Street and Gin Lane are paired prints issued in 1751, a month after Fielding's essay. Rather than crime, Hogarth focused on oppression by the governing classes as a contributing factor to gin use. His prints were accompanied by verses written by his friend the Reverend James Townley (epigraph). Viewed together, the 2 prints contrast the evils of gin consumption with the merits of drinking beer. In comparison to the hopelessness of Gin Lane, people living on Beer Street demonstrate robust health, where industry and jollity go hand in hand: “Beer . . . Can sinewy Strength impart/And wearied with Fatigue and Toil/Can chear each manly heart.”2(p146)

Gin Lane depicts the parish of St Giles, Westminster, and its notorious slum district, known as the Ruins of St Giles, where only gin sellers and gin distillers (one is named Kilman), pawnbrokers, and undertakers flourished while the people lived in squalor and despair. The central image is the intoxicated woman in the foreground, with breasts exposed and secondary syphilitic sores on her legs, who is preoccupied with her snuff tray and oblivious as her child plunges to his death into the stairwell of the gin cellar, with its drinking vessel emblem Gin Royal. Over its door is engraved “Drunk for a penny/Dead drunk for two pence.” Hogarth's real-life model may have been the notorious Judith Defour, who in 1734 forged permission papers to take her 2-year-old daughter from a workhouse where the child had been given new clothes. She strangled the child and sold her clothes to buy gin, leaving the body in a ditch.

Below the central figure is a skeletal man with a gin bottle in his basket along with unsold moralizing pamphlets about the evils of drinking, The Downfall of Mrs. Gin. Next to him is a black dog, a symbol of despair. Above and to the left is a pawnbroker, S. Gripe, who negotiates for the vital possessions of a carpenter, his coat and his saw, and for a woman's kitchen pots, in exchange for money to buy drink. In front of them, a man and a dog vie for a bone. Behind the central image, a cook is beating his head with a bellows and holding a baby aloft on a skewer, people brawl with one another, young women offer one another a gin toast, and a woman pours gin down the throat of her child. A brick building behind them is collapsing, and above them a barber has hanged himself for lack of business. In the background, a woman is being placed in a coffin as her child despairs, and further back there is a funeral procession. As a coda to it all, the sign of the pawnbroker's shop forms a cross above St George Parish Church in the distance.

The 1751 Gin Act was successful in dramatically reducing the use of gin. Two hundred years after the gin craze, the United States began its noble “social and economic experiment”5(p294) when in January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, approving Prohibition. But unfortunately, Prohibition, as it had in 1736, when taxes and regulations as a form of prohibition were passed, turned citizens into criminals because the law was unenforceable. The law that regulated complete Prohibition, the Volstead Act, was challenged in regard to wine, and the Supreme Court agreed that homemade wine was allowed because no human law could prevent fruit juices from fermenting naturally; by 1930, the Bureau of Prohibition estimated that more than 100 million gallons of wine were made in homes. During the Great Depression, Prohibition was ended on December 5, 1933, by the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment; regulation and taxes resumed.

Today in the United States, alcohol is readily available, and about 4% of US residents are alcohol dependent in any given year. The focus has shifted to prevention of early use and to the treatment of alcoholism. Adolescent use of alcohol and tobacco is increasingly viewed as a gateway to other drugs of abuse.7 Animal models and human studies demonstrate that opioid antagonists may reduce alcohol ingestion in a dose-response manner.8 There is increasing evidence that those who respond to naloxone have a definite family history of alcoholism, earlier onset of alcohol dependence, and strong cravings for alcohol. A candidate gene approach using targeted therapy is finding that individuals who carry the Asp40 allele of the mu opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) are more likely to respond to naltrexone treatment.8

Thus, the gift of Bacchus remains with us, requiring the ongoing development of new approaches to treat the complications it has created for humankind.

Thanks to Charles P. O’Brien, MD, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this commentary.

 Euripides The Bacchae.  New York, NY Classic Books America2009;
Paulson  R Hogarth's Graphic Works. 3rd London, UK The Print Room1989;
Daley  A Bacchus: A Biography.  Los Angeles, CA Getty Publications2004;
Orso  SN Velázquez, Los Borrachos, and Painting at the Court of Philip IV.  Cambridge, UK Cambridge University Press1993;
Dillon  P Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: the Eighteenth Century Gin Craze.  Boston, MA Justin, Charles & Co2004;
Clark  P The “Mother Gin” controversy in the early eighteenth century.  Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series 1988;3863- 84Google Scholar
Kandel  DBed Stages and Pathways of Drug Involvement: Examining the Gateway Hypothesis.  New York, NY Cambridge University Press2002;
O’Brien  CP Prospects for a genomic approach to the treatment of alcoholism.  Arch Gen Psychiatry 2008;65 (2) 132- 133PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref