The glamorisation of smoking in art

Glamorisation is smoking is evident throughout art over the centuries from artists including Picasso and Van Gogh. The influence this has had is extremely broad and has lead to it feeding into other types of media including film and music including popular songs such as 'Castle On A Hill.'

The glamorisation of smoking in art

The growing of tobacco started almost 8000 years ago although the smoking and chewing of tobacco didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until around 2000 years ago. The smoking of tobacco became orientated with class with cigars acting as a status symbol as they were and still are expensive, imported, hand-crafted items that corporate and political leaders consumed making them carry the idea of class and the image of a better life and position in society. Furthermore the setting up of gentlemen’s clubs and the addition of smoking rooms into society crated the impression that those smoking were privileged and wealthy. Although this addictive habit has many medical implications and through the glamorisation of smoking through class and in art across time it has become a popular phenomenon, with social smoking being a popular activity, particularly amongst youth, despite the evident heath risks and slogan associated with smoking; “Smoking Kills”. 

Artwork depicting smoking is evident across the world and across decades. Many older works depicting Lords and figures of power smoking cigars as well as cigarettes. With notable figures of importance known for smoking including Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Einstein, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Ian Fleming all of whom died of smoke related diseases. 

This popularity of smoking becoming a status symbol due to the expense of tobacco and cigars and so seen as a luxury item owned by only the rich when it was popularized. This idea of superiority through smoking is evident in the work of Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Enrique Simonet, as well as more modern artists including Chuck Close. Their artworks, respectively, depicting images of both men and women smoking.

Boy with a Pipe, painted by Picasso in 1905 depicts a young boy dressed in blue holding a pipe. A garland of pink roses encases his head and the wall behind him is painted in a sombre red, itself also decorated by flowers. Picasso had used light to model the boy’s face with the light source streaming in from the top left causing cast shadows to fall from his nose and behind his raised hand. His highlighted quite beautiful face of the young boy falls in contrast to his clothes. His dirty overalls appearing mudded and worn. He makes no eye contact with the viewer drawing a barrier between the space represented in the painting and the viewers. Although, he appears casual in his pose, slightly slumped forward and disengaged with his surroundings. This casual, normal atmosphere created in this painting by Pablo Picasso suggests to the normality and acceptability pf smoking and especially smoking at a young age. Furthermore, this piece was quite revolutionary for Picasso as it showed his style of painting progressing from the El Greco palette and the expressionist forms towards a more harmonious classicism, meaning it is highly regarded and has been viewed by millions. 

Self-portrait with pipe and Straw hat, by Vincent Van Gogh, is painted with large taches for brush strokes creating an image of broken colour. This style of painting allowing for him to continue his chromatic experiments, laying tone next to tone rather than expressing his paintings in naturalistic colour. The rapid marks make this painting appear almost sketchy in appearance, although a greater attention to detail is captured in the tonality of the face, amongst the areas of bright bold colour. Although a self-portrait this painting is capturing the sense of affinity between the local farmers. Once again the pose of Vincent himself in this portrait does not appear posed or staged; it appears highly natural for him to attain this pose. This brings a sense of affinity with smoking, as though it is just part of natural habit. This casual relation is not giving status to smoking but acceptance of it as what is normal and an acceptable activity to part take in it. 

Enrique Simonet’s self portrait painted in 1918 depicts him, himself, formally dressed and unlike the previous two he appears quite staged although not quite attaining authority or dominance in his pose, with his hand resting in his pocket; appearing quite at ease in his surroundings. This highly detailed painting is modeled extremely well to create vivid naturalistic qualities to the skin of Simonet. Although the painting on the suit appears to have been painted by dragging dry paint across the canvas creating the almost unfinished appearance of this painting. Although no in a pose of authority, Enrique makes eye contact with the viewer, painted from below looking up as though he is looking down on the viewer. This brings a sense of status to Enrique and how he views himself and his position in society. His casual pose and suit expressing how he can enjoy his wealth; the luxurious fabric, nonessential tobacco. In this post WW1 time of 1918 in a recovering economy is shows him as a person of wealth and power. His relaxed attitude to his wealth shows clear superiority and splendor to all contained within the canvas, including his cigarette. He is clearly wealthy and is depicted smoking, his high station in society adds to the glamour around this action of smoking. 

More modern artists have also created self-portraits of themselves smoking including Chuck Close. His Big Self-Portrait (with Cigarette) painted in 1967 – 1968 is a photorealistic portrait painted to a high quality of detail composed with different levels of focus difference, defined in the quality of the stubble but evidently less focused across the hair. He wanted this to be perceived as a big, almost aggressive image of himself, making it big so it is hard to ignore. This 9ft tall painting appears almost as a monument to himself. Its sheer size allowing for the audience to interact with the image allowing the viewer to read it differently from distances. Appearing almost indistinguishable from a photograph far away, but up close the individual brush strokes evident on the surface. This painting captures a variety of light across the face with the image appearing lit from above casting shadows down onto the face creating dramatic highlights and to an extent a sense of chiaroscuro is crated. This light creating dramatic shadows adding to the intensity of the image. The depiction of smoking in this painting can be summed up by Chuck Close himself, who said in an interview; “There’s no question, I had some attitude about the way I wanted to be perceived. Now it seems very funny wanting to look like this tough guy with a cigarette sticking out of the corner of my mouth”. His portrait expresses a sense of masculinity and strength attached to smoking, as though smoking is a sign of a true man. 

These paintings all show evidence of the glamorisation of smoking expressed through art over time. The depiction of smoking first being depicted in art has gone on to be depicted in other areas of the arts including music and film due to the dismissal of the stigmatisation of smoking through the social acceptance of it, despite the risks it inflicts. Although bans have been put in place to reduce the usage of tobacco in films with the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act which blocked the advertising and sponsorship of tobacco brands, tobacco companies found a new frontier to promote their brands; through films and music.

A US study showed that onscreen smoking accounts for 37% of all new adolescent smokers and predicted that in 2014 6 million new child smokers would arise and 2 million would ultimately die from tobacco induced diseases. With the 15 most successful films in the UK from 1989-2008 having tobacco in 70% with 92% rated for children below 18. With popular films including Alice in Wonderland and Transformers depicting smoking in the form of Absolem the caterpillar and a cigar smoking robot. These films commercially directed at young and impressionable children give off an image of smoking as a common and recognised phenomenon and as something which is acceptable to part take in.

Furthermore, placement of tobacco in music videos has been increasing over the years to an extent that in 2014 in the to 32 music videos there were 470 seconds (4.7 mins) of tobacco impressions, which are thought to have had over 1 billion tobacco impressions made in Britain alone. With more recent music videos including 7 years (Lukas Graham); “By eleven smoking herb and drinking burning liquor” and Castle on a Hill (Ed Sheeran) “Fifteen years old and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes” , making clear references to smoking at a young age with 7 years receiving 630 million views on you tube and Castle on a hill 270 million. (Images showing scenes from Castle on a hill music video).

The health risks that this promotion of smoking could lead to are awful. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance and the constant approval of smoking given through art, films and music videos is adding to the number of people dying from tobacco induced diseases. Smoking leads to lung diseases including COPD including emphysema and bronchitis, lung cancer, mouth cancers. With smokers at 13 X more likely to develop COPD and smokers who suffer from asthma at risk of provoking an attack. Furthermore smoking reduces fertility in both men and women and can have serious implications on pregnant women. In smokers there is an increased chance of a miscarriage, still birth and premature births and also at deformities occurring in the child. Moreover it can have damages on the heart and blood circulation increasing the risks of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. With passive, second hand smokers also at risk from inhaling the smoke with a ¼ increase in developing lung cancer and increased chances of chest infections and glue ear in children. These risks implemented on the back of smoking make the glamorisation evident in the arts even more negligent and critical. 

Tobacco companies justify themselves by saying they are just meeting the market demand and by doing so are providing countless jobs to farmers of tobacco and within their companies. That what their consumers do with their products is down to them and that the risks are clearly displayed to them through the ‘smoking kills’ and ‘smokers die younger’ stickers which are displayed on the boxes, showing that they don’t condone the inhalation and smoking of the cigarettes they produce but they are not going to stop production due to the high market demand. But this raises the morality of this production. That if they are so clear on the risks their customers are at, how can they still allow cigarettes to be produced when the effects of smoking are so dire? 

Smoking has not only been popularised through the arts but also by the rich and famous. Celebrities are constantly being pictured smoking, these people being resembled as role models and having large impacts on young particularly now with social media. Furthermore with the social acceptance of women smoking introduced in post war time in the 1920’s had encouraged another 50% of the population to be encouraged into smoking. 

Although some would argue differently. People have free will and a freedom of choice in what they do and what activities they take part in. That a brand can market their product in any way they wish but what the customer does with the product is their choice. That the depiction of smoking we see isn’t glamorising smoking but just showing that smoking is an accepted part of society and that there is also plenty of artwork, music and films which condemn smoking for what it is. Furthermore that for some smoking provides a necessary escape from anxiety, stress and calms nerves providing a relief to many. 

In conclusion the artwork of Picasso and Van Gogh depict smoking in such a relaxed and casual manner as just a part of society that it appears normal and expected, meanwhile in the art of Enrique Simone there is a greater connotation of social status, class and wealth behind the simple action of smoking. This adds a new dimension to smoking placing a greater importance on it and on the impression it is giving off. However the art work of Chuck Close gives reason to believe it suggests a sense of masculinity and strength. This depiction of smoking has found its natural course into other forms of the arts which in this day and age have greater implications on younger generations and that despite the health risks and warnings the levels of smokers has increased and the production of cigarettes has not halted. Ultimately, I feel the influence of the glamorisation of smoking in art is what has led to its widespread acceptance and development in other forms of the arts and as a knock on effect the numbers of smokers have increased. That the impacts of this glamour are hidden behind the haze of acceptance created from celebrities and music promoting and almost celebrating smoking despite the risks it puts of human life. 

Please read and leave comments on how you stand on the topic :) .  P.s. Please look up the paintings -  they are really amazing. 

Research websites  -,,,,, 


  • Luke Taylor

    On 7 February 2018, 10:31 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    What a well research article! Smoking in art is definitely an issue that needs to be considered.

  • Tom Inniss

    On 7 February 2018, 13:16 Tom Inniss Voice Team commented:

    An interesting and really well thought out argument. I personally hate smoking, but I think it does have a place in art work if it is representative of the mood, culture, society or behaviour that the artist is trying to represent.

    For example, they are constantly smoking in Peaky Blinders, but it's accepted and acceptable because that is something that would be common in that environment.

    Equally, musicians singing about smoking and drinking at 15 isn't necessarily glamourising, as it could be more autobiographical - More 'this happened during my life' rather than 'this was amazing and everyone should do it', or something less on the nose...

    Things like Tom and Jerry being edited to remove the smoking scenes is perhaps a bit extreme, but equally I can see why it might happen, as the smoking isn't integral to the place, time and plot of the cartoon.

    A great piece and has been added to the Editors' Pick Voicebox!

  • James chapman

    On 22 February 2018, 15:37 James chapman commented:

    I really agree. Smoking is awful and it’s amazing that it’s depiction is so constant in our lives. Good argument.

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