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Wine as an ally to seduction and love

Vermeer Girl with a Wineglass.jpg


Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) 

ca. 1659-1660

Herzog Anton-Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany







Women drinking wine are an essential incarnation of vice in the work of Vermeer. The artist elegantly portrays the private lives of silent, timeless women in a movingly naturalistic way. He would dedicate seven of his thirty-five known works to the negative effects of wine. In this image, and the five others in this gallery, wine is clearly represented as an instrument of seduction (the seventh work, A Woman Asleep, shows the consequences of overindulgence). Many painters of the period portray women being seduced by men and wine, as in Man Offering a Glass of Wine to a Woman by Pieter de Hooch (see below).


“Wine is like a love potion which can have two effects, either passionate love or paralysing melancholy. The man sitting at the table appears to have indulged, as he seems melancholic. The man in the centre is perhaps acting as an intermediary in the husband’s absence – the painting on the wall shows a man whose image seems to be watching the young woman. The characters are arranging a secret love affair.”

The seduction is plainer in this painting than in similar works by Vermeer. The young woman looks away from the window, but still seems hesitant; will she succumb? Is she looking at the angry reflection of her friend, hunched over the table, in a mirror; or is she taking the viewer as a witness? The scene is open to interpretation. She seems to be avoiding looking at the four-leafed clover in the half-open window (NB. click on the image below to see the pane in detail). The plant symbolises Temperentia, or temperance – one of the cardinal virtues – and is accompanied by a set square, symbol of justice, and a bridle, symbolizing control of the passions. Contrary to appearances, this representation of the alliance of love and wine is shrouded in mystery. The wine is golden, the crystal glasses sparkle; but is this enough? The lemon on the silver cup could act as an antidote to this love potion.

1. The man featured in The Glass of Wine hopes that the wine will act as an aphrodisiac, lifting the young woman's inhibitions and laying the groundwork for more intimate pleasures. The four-leafed clover on the window is the same as that featured in The Girl with the Wine Glass. The symbol, directly in the seated woman's eye line, is intended as a warning. Find out more - Focus: a look, a work  >>

2. Wine is also an instrument of seduction in the Officer with a Laughing Girl.

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1. “If in The Glass of Wine (Lady Drinking and a Gentleman), the ‘love potion’ is also connected to music, as in Girl Interrupted at her Music (this scene appears to follow a musical entertainment, as shown by the lute on the chair and the sheet music on the table). As the titles show, this time, wine ‘plays second fiddle’ in these paintings: the young woman who has just set her lute and music down on the table, concentrates on reading a letter (apparently a love letter) that the man has just given to her. A glass of wine, associated with both joy and seduction, appears discreetly on the table behind the music book. As yet unopened, it indicates to the viewer that the affair between the man and the woman is still in its early stages. The young woman looks away, unsure if she should read the secret message. A painting by Cesar van Everdingen hangs on the back wall, from where the figure of Cupid holding a love letter hints at a certain eroticism. The image, taken from a bestselling book on love symbols published in 1608, symbolises fidelity ("Perfectus amor est nisi ad unum", or “perfect love only exists for one”). The young woman is on the point of breaking the marriage vows that society has set for her. The birdcage on the wall symbolises how she should behave: she is the symbol of captivity in love.” (Source : Robert Schneider, Vermeer, Taschen). Love and music are often connected in Dutch paintings and the metaphor of the lute alludes specifically to ‘immodest’ love."


2. Wine also features in The Music Lesson. In this painting we can see the same wine decanter as in The Girl with the Wine Glass and The Glass of Wine. It is made of earthenware (and not porcelain, as many suppose, since ceramicists did not have access to the kaolin clay necessary for the manufacture of real porcelain). It is decorated with oriental patterns in blue and silver. “Delft faience” was brand new at the time and wine bottles did not become commonplace until the eighteenth century.


3. The subject of The Procuress is the commerce of love. A young woman, cheeks flushed from drinking wine, opens her hand for a coin from the gentleman in the feathered hat. This seems to be a down-payment for services to come (he does not hesitate to touch her cleavage, a gesture apparently appreciated by the young woman). The scene, helped by wine, shows the start of an extra-conjugal ‘romance’; the procuress in black attentively watches the conclusion of the deal. (Source : Robert Schneider, Vermeer, Taschen). Old woman are often represented as matchmakers in paintings. The scene is also a warning, telling young woman to stay away from such characters. Elderly people represent the idea that life is short and one should seize the day. In Dutch painting, feathers in a hat represent light morals (as do the low necklines and red stockings in this picture).

Whether passionate, calm, convenient or commercial, wine often plays a part in representations of love


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1 à 2. Taken moderately, wine is often the ally of seduction and love – if not outright eroticism.  Indeed, don’t we talk of ‘love-drunkenness’? Dutch painters of the 16th century were among the first to represent wine as an instrument of seduction.  Works celebrating the five senses (an important theme in classical art) did not escape this new development, whether in The Sense of Taste by Jan Breughel the Elder, or Allegory of the Five Senses by Simon de Vos. In the latter painting, the five senses are represented through a festive scene. If the sense of taste is represented by flasks of wine, the sense of sight is shown through the lovers’ hidden glance; music also holds a significant place in the scene. The Merry Company is shown in works by Dirck Hals, Gerrit van Honthorst and Jan Steen. Each of these works represents the connection between wine, music and forbidden love, with a positive accent placed on the latter. “The proverb evoked - 'As the old sing, so pipe the young' - denounces parents who are lax in the education and protection of their children from vice.”

3 à 9. The Merry Company is clearly illustrated by Dirck Hals, Isaac Elias, Gerrit van Honthorst. In each of these works, the significant association of wine with illegitimate or paid-for love, and sometimes music, holds centre stage.

13 à 19. Painters such as Hemessen, Rembrandt, Metsu and Laemen take up the same theme, this time with a direct allusion to the parable of the prodigal son. But if the Bible focuses on the return of the errant young man, painters have often focused on the seedier parts of the story. The works The Prodigal Son and Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of Prodigal Son in the Tavern, also known as Allegory of Love and Wine, are explicit in this (‘tavern’ signifies brothel, as was sometimes the case in this period). The painting uses Rembrandt himself and his wife Saskia as the prodigal son and a prostitute.


20. This picture provides a gleefully non-judgmental depiction of a young couple carousing in the doorway of an inn or brothel. Flushed cheeks and open-mouthed grins indicate that the pair have broken with contemporary rules of comportment. Yet even the humble interior in which they find themselves boasts a landscape painting above the mantelpiece (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).


23. Wine and venal love go hand in hand, and such images been used to illustrate the “terrestrial appetites” of men. Later, during the nineteenth century, “the brothel girls would persuade their clients to buy them champagne and were paid a bonus by their madam in line with to the number of bottles paid for. The same tactic was used in certain night clubs. Professional hostesses would drink with the clients, but would often tip their own glasses into the champagne bucket to encourage more purchases.”

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10. With Breakfast (today it would be considered lunch), Gabriel Metsu shows us the weapons of the seducer: wine and oysters, both of which were thought to be aphrodisiacs.


14. In a more relaxed style, Girl Eating Oysters shows a young ‘coquette’ who knows perfectly well the effects of mixing “the juices of salted oysters” with white wine. She has decided to take every precaution and is preparing several extra oysters for her lover. As though to remove any ambiguity from the scene, Steen adds another clue: a bed, its curtains drawn, behind the young woman.


16. The proverb that this image is referring to (“while the parents drink, the children toast”) denounces parents who care little about educating their children and protecting them from their own vices.


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1. The bas-relief in the left background of a man embracing a woman, and the naked statues of Venus and Hercules, provide an erotic mythological subtext to a scene of contemporary seduction, where a gentleman offers a lady a glass of wine. His intentions are made clear by the large plate of oysters – a well-known aphrodisiac – in the foreground. The lady, however, seems hesitant. Musical accompaniment often symbolizes amorous harmony, but here the lady holds, rather than plays, her theorbo ( asort of baroque lute). Two figures look on, intrigued by the proceedings (Wallace Coll.).

2. With the eighteenth century, we move away from the realm of Dutch art. Watteau plunges us into one of the gallant parties popular during this period with The French Comedy. A credible hypothesis places this scene at the conclusion of an intermezzo of the Feast of Love and Bacchus, set to music by Lully, which was shown in Paris in 1706 and 1716. The opera features the reconciliation of Bacchus (here, the seated actor crowned with vine leaves), and Cupid (identifiable with his quiver of arrows),to whom he holds out his glass for a toast. Time seems to have been lost to love, dancing, madness, drunkenness and reconciliation – to all of which wine has made a contribution. The glasses seem to be filled with champagne, the wine of actors, fashionable long before it was popularized by Madame de Pompadour, who described it as “the only wine that leaves women beautiful after drinking it.” She had 200 bottles of champagne delivered each year.


5-6. With his Repas Italien, one of Watteau’s followers, Nicolas Lancret, plunges us into a rural scene, with “refined aristocratic libertines and the bottles cooling in their baskets”. In a similar vein, The Lovers by Jean-Marc Nattier gives us a clear picture of the connection between love and the pleasures of wine.


> Découvrez les oeuvres dans leur entier en cliquant sur les vignettes

2. Der König in Thule est un poème de Goethe écrit en 1774. Il est ultérieurement utilisé dans l'œuvre majeure du poète, Faust. Gérard de Nerval en publiera une traduction dans La Bohème galante (1855). English translation © Richard Wigmore:


There was a king in Thule / faithful unto the grave, / whose dying mistress / gave him a golden goblet.

Nothing was more precious to him; / he drained it at every feast. / His eyes filled with tears / whenever he drank from it.

And when he came to die / he counted the towns in his realm, / bequeathed all to his heirs, / except for that goblet.
He sat at the royal banquet, / his knights around him / in the lofty ancestral hall / in his castle by the sea.

The old toper stood there, / drank life’s last glowing draught, / and hurled the sacred goblet / into the waves below.

He watched it fall and drink / and sink deep into the sea. / His eyes, too, sank; / he drank not one drop more.

Ce poème a rencontré un grand succès populaire et a été mis en musique par plusieurs compositeurs, notamment Schubert.




3. In nineteenth-century England, James Tissot invites us to a picnic with The Foursome. The difference between this image and its inspiration, Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass (Déjeuner sur l'herbe), is that Tissot’s painting is characterized by an academic approach which belies its suggestive title.


6. Champagne, present at every great moment, leads us to Manet’s At Father Lathuille. The painting enchanted Huysmans at the Salon of 1880. In this restaurant terrace on the Avenue Clichy, a bottle of champagne sits on the table between two (soon-to-be?) lovers.

11. In this painting Toulouse-Lautrec, known for his love of the Parisian nightlife, shows us Lucy Jourdain, a celebrated demi-mondaine, with her lover, the ‘Baron de W’. In a Private Dining Room harks back to the “small private salons that one could reserve in the best restaurants in Paris, connected to illicit encounters and a subject of interest for caricaturists”, according to Danièle Devynck, Head Curator of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi. She adds: “the painting is set in a cafe-restaurant frequented by the artist in the late 1890s.”

17. In At The Café, Emil Nolde dissects the nightlife of the big city. “These women, courtesans from Berlin, keep the bourgeois men company. The characters are calmly seated, visibly relaxed; despite this, the painting contains a kind of sparkling excitement (perhaps provoked to some extent by the wine) which comes across to the viewer in bright colours. The loaded look that the two men direct at the woman gives the scene an erotic edge.” Does wine contribute to this? Indeed, is champagne this scene’s only ‘refreshment’?

21. Tristan has vanquished Morholt. Presenting himself at the royal court after the fight, King Mark begs him to find Isolde, the girl with golden hair, so that she may become his queen. Aboard the ship taking them to the royal court, Tristan and Isolde mistakenly drink a love potion made by the latter’s mother to ensure the success of her daughter’s marriage to King Mark. Under the influence of the potion, Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love.

23. Let’s conclude this part of The Virtual Wine Museum tour with the kind ‘drunken’, irrational love celebrated by Marc Chagall in Double Portrait with Glass of Wine. Here, wine even breaks the laws of gravity. Chagall glorifies his union with Bella, saying that “the whole composition oozes gaiety: the Dionysian explosion of bodies and senses, evoked by the husband’s wineglass, his mischievous hand covering the eyes of his young wife who, under her virginal but low-cut wedding dress, is wearing purple stockings”. This ensemble illustrates the earthly and supernatural power of love. The green-haloed angel participates in the mystical and sensual poetry of the scene by watching over the couple. 


Bartolomeo_Passerrotti_Allegra_Compagnia c 1577 Priv alt musee Grand Siecle.jpg


Bartolomeo Passerotti

ca. 1577

Musée du Grand Siècle, Pierre Rosenberg's collection, late 2026, Saint-Cloud, France 



Bologne, en Italie, est à la fin du Cinquecento* le berceau de mouvements d'avant-garde et d'importantes expériences stylistiques. Parmi les nouveautés proposées figure le genre des pitture ridicole, "peintures ridicules" dont le but, par la représentation caricaturale de personnages est de provoquer le rire du spectateur. C'est ainsi que cette œuvre eut à l'époque un grand succès. La caricature, à partir de l'observation de certains traits, y accentue et déforme l'aspect des figures, avec un résultat bizarre, humoristique, anecdotique, grotesque. La volonté de ridiculiser les participants à ce banquet se double d’allusions allégoriques, notamment sexuelles comme une saucisse et des gousses d’ail d’une part, faisant allusion au sexe masculin, et d'autre part des figues ouvertes qui évoquent le sexe féminin. Le vin est lui considéré comme un aphrodisiaque, tandis que le pain est le symbole de la fertilité.

* L'apogée de la Renaissance italienne au XVIe siècle.




Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem


Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands 



Selon la légende, une béguine* aurait été accusée d’être tombée enceinte. Pour vérifier cela, un moine devait presser son sein et s’il produisait du lait, elle était coupable. Mais au lieu de lait, elle produisit du vin – ce qui expliquerait la présence d'un verre de vin sur la table.


Au lieu de prouver la culpabilité de la religieuse, le miracle était un témoignage de sa foi. Pourtant, la légende n’était probablement pas le véritable sujet de la peinture. Les images de moines et de nonnes amoureux étaient un genre populaire à la fin du XVIe siècle. Il s’agit peut-être en fait d’une satire de l’immoralité des cloîtres et de l’Église catholique (source : Frans Hals Museum).

* Une béguine est une femme, le plus souvent célibataire ou veuve, appartenant à une communauté religieuse laïque sous une règle monastique, mais sans former de vœux perpétuels. Les béguines vivent dans de petites maisons individuelles souvent regroupées autour d'une chapelle pour former un ensemble appelé « béguinage » (dans le nord de la France et en Belgique).


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A pictorial technique similar to that of frescoes or miniatures, illuminations were very popular during the Middle Ages. Done by hand, illuminations decorated or illustrated texts, usually on handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in religious settings, such as abbeys, where they were used to support prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, private artisans began to produce literature for the secular market. This was due to the greater literacy that had resulted from the growing university and administrative sectors.

Find out more: Wine in Illuminations  >>


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