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Painting and the Visual Arts

Painting and the Visual Arts

Within the purview of world cultures, the vast majority do not address the subject of food in art in a gustatory manner or, at least, not to any great extent. When the subject emerged in the Mediterranean Basin, it was the Italiansone of whose bequests was the very concept of cives (or civilization)who have had the longest history of a preoccupation with food. This being said, all art about food for eating in the West can be divided into three parts: leftovers on the floor, food displayed in preparation for the meal, and completed dishes, whether cooked or ripe, set out on a table, ledge, or some other flat surface. The ancient Greek beginnings were preserved by the Romans and feature the rhopoi, the trivial remains of a meal found in a floor mosaic that call to mind the excesses imagined by Petronius for the feast of the ex-slave Trimalchio in the Satyricon. Alternatively, there is the xenion, the gift of food laid out on a ledge and painted on the wall in trompe l'oeil to tempt and tease a tired traveler.

With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of a declining Roman Empire, secular subject matter went into eclipse. However, there was still food on the table in the proper sanctified contexts, such as the Feast in the House of Levi, the Wedding at Cana, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, the Last Supper, and the Supper at Emmaus. Medieval renderings of these subjects feature food only in its rudiments. But from the Renaissance through the Baroque periods, there is a resurgence of worldliness, manifesting itself in a considerable interest in the menu and the table setting. Tintoretto's Last Supper, in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, is a case in point. Here, the serving of a wide range of foodstuffs by assembled servants distracts from Christ's proleptically offering the Host to his disciples. Another example is Veronese's huge Last Supper for the Monastery of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. Wine in large bottles, wrapped in leather or raffia, is poured into hand-blown Murano goblets. A large bowl holding fowl is set before Jesus; a mercenary walks away from the table with a plate full of food, tipping his head back to down his wine. Veronese even records that cutlery invention borrowed from Byzantium, the fork. When the Inquisition objected, Veronese pled artistic license, but changed the title to Christ in the House of Levi.

A very important entrepôt for the depiction of food and its cultivation is found in the calendar pages and borders of the Books of Hours of the early Renaissance. In the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, the cooked, pricked biscuits and pretzels, and the raw mussels, a crab, and fish eating fish, border the images of individual saints. A notable instance of calendar events is found in the Limbourg Brothers' Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. In January, Berry sits at a groaning board to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany; in September, the grapes are harvested at his favorite chateau. A second broadcasting of seed occupies a peasant in October, while by November, peasants are tasked with shaking down acorns to fatten the boars that will be consumed at Christmas. This tradition of seasonal occupations and festivities carried over into oil painting in the five great landscapes by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. His Return of the Hunters illustrates a perennial activity in the dead of winter, the slaughtering and singeing of a hog. Brueghel also essayed the novel subject of Carnival battling with Lent, who proffers the fasting foods of pretzels and herring on a peel in opposition to the skewered viands of gluttony.

In the secular realm, Renaissance Italy set the tone for the rest of Europe in art, in horticulture, in cuisine, and in prolonged, elaborate feasting that was both a political statement and a gastronomic assault. Paintings of interiors of vast noble kitchens filled with activity provide visual complements to the descriptions of state banquets set down by the professional cook Bartolomeo Scappi in his monumental Opera (1570). At the opposite end of the spectrum are the exquisite watercolors on parchment created by Giovanna Garzoni, many of them for the Medici, who were avid innovators in gardening. Frequently, her figs, broad beans, artichokes, or cherries, painted life-size, are set out in bowls lined with grape leaves that are placed on Mother Earth to honor the Tuscan preference for rustic food fresh from the land. A contemporary foil to Italy's gastronomic bliss is Anthonius Claesson's painting of an English family of ten saying grace at a table, where a roast of beef holds center stage framed by two great salts. There is a round loaf of bread on the table, but no vegetables, and an old-fashioned cut of bacon is being carried to the table.

It is this Italian absorption with food that prompted Annibale Carracci to invent the first genre paintings in the 1580s. Although he excelled as a history painter, Carracci departed from this exalted calling when he painted two scenes of meat stalls, where butchers were plying their trade, and another of a peasant mangiafagiolo (bean eater), mouth agape, hungrily shoveling in beans. Following on the heels of Carracci, the archrebel Caravaggio revived the xenion tradition in the 1590s with his Basket of Fruit. The fruit is piled high in a wicker basket that extends over a ledge. A similar basket of fruit at the table's edge graces his Supper at Emmaus, where the realism of the well-accoutred table is balanced against the miraculous moment of Christ's revelation.

By the seventeenth century, the Dutch, whose country was arguably the wealthiest in Europe at that time, rivaled the Italians in prolonged feasting and in paintings about comestibles characterized by spillage and over-abundance. That Dutch still life of the interrupted meal and genre paintings of market scenes and the stalls of fishmongers and butchers may be vanitas symbols or allegories of gluttony, or the five senses, respectively, is much debated. Whatever their symbolic charge, they, nevertheless, reveal what went onto the Dutch table and into the Dutch stomach. In stark contrast to these paintings that become touchstones for everyday experience is Rembrandt's depiction of the Slaughtered Ox, where the stilled life of the carcass, slit down the belly, splayed and hung, functions on the level of metaphor.

The Dutch and the Spanish, who were united under Habsburg rule until 1581, diverge in their depictions of food. Spanish art's distinctive contribution is the bodegón, where food is displayed on a ledge in stark raking light. The bodegón replicates the environment in which Spanish food was often placed, since in that hot Mediterranean country the kitchen was located in the basement with windows placed high in the wall. Outstanding examples of the bodegón aesthetic are found in the oeuvre of Sanchez Cotan, whose works have been rightly pronounced "solemn, magical larders." Bodegóns are for contemplation, not consumption.

The French, who from Gallic times had displayed an especial affinity for food's preparation, did not produce distinctive still lifes and genre paintings with foodstuffs until the eighteenth century. Then Chardin, whose subject matter so often addresses the domestic worlds of working-class maids and middle-class mothers, masterfully crafted works that reflected their domain in the kitchen and at table. Some of his still lifes can even be read as a list of ingredients that make up a particular dish. Concurrently, Boucher introduced the subject that was destined to become a French preoccupation, the déjeuner.

Although the Philadelphia still life painter Raphaelle Peale probably did not know the work of Chardin, he, too, assembled and painted raw ingredients for a meal. His other specialty was depicting a variety of skillfully decorated cakes. It is germane that, by the Federal era, Philadelphia was not only America's most culturally sophisticated and ethnically diverse city, but also her culinary capital.

On the Spanish front, the early nineteenth century witnessed Napoleon's Peninsular War and the retaliatory tactics of guerrilla warfare. In this brutal atmosphere, Francisco Goya also pursued the idea of still life as metaphor. His three gutted salmon slices, rendered a pulsating deep pinkish red, are not set forth in anticipation of a meal. The painting is about evisceration.

By contrast, there are numerous instances when it becomes clear that artists have been preoccupied with food's pleasures. The record goes back to Michelangelo. His illustrated list for a Lenten menu, though restricted to bread, fish, and wine, expands as he contemplates the happy possibilities. Not surprisingly, it is in nineteenth-century France, in the era when French haute cuisine was perfected, that the joys of the table begin to proliferate in art. Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, which takes place at the Restaurant Fournaise on an island that divided the Seine at Chatou, celebrates a meal that has advanced to the dessert course. Renoir's friend Monet was equally taken with the subject of mealtime; it is significant in this regard that at one point Renoir stole bread so that the Monet family would not go hungry. Early in his career, Monet depicted the déjeuner as it was consumed by family or friends on four occasions. Later in life, when Monet was established in his career and could afford to buy a house in Giverny, he would give special consideration to the interior decoration of the chrome yellow dining room, down to the detail of two sets of china. His cooking journals record what was placed on those plates. Bonnard is another French artist who depicted the pleasures of the table. Nor should it be forgotten that the painting that launched the Impressionist rebellion was aboutand not aboutlunch: Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.

Matisse helped usher in modern art by serving up the resplendent Harmony in Red (19081909). Against a red wall decorated with blue floral arrangements, a motif that flows onto a red table holding two wine decanters, fruit, and rolls, a maid bends slightly to arrange more fruit on a compote. A riveting instance of a Surrealist's preoccupation with food on the table is René Magritte's 1935 Portrait. Magritte's scene is set in a bistro with a bottle of wine and a place setting for one gracing the table. In keeping with his conviction that images are treacherous, Magritte fills the plate with a round slice of ham containing one centered eye looking up at the diner, hence the artist's title. Another Surrealist contribution is Meret Oppenheim's Objet : Déjeuner en fourrure, a furlined teacup and spoon that has become a veritable icon.

As the twentieth century progressed and people became more removed from food's involved preparation, art about food lost its celebratory aspect. Edward Hopper's Night Hawks (1942), though set in a diner, is hardly about the enjoyable consumption of food. Rather it exudes the grim impersonality found in film noir. As the availability of food came to be taken for granted on account of mass production, art about food dwindled into banality. Several 1960s Pop artists addressed the topic. Wayne Thiebaud's deliberately monotonous pies and cakes, so synthetic looking, are reminiscent of the days of the Automat. A further distancing of food from contexts of nurture and nature is found in Andy Warhol's obsession with highly commercialized processed food in his images of soup cans and bottles of Coke that unfold repetitiously. Claes Oldenberg's response was to transmogrify junk food. In 1979, Judy Chicago completed Dinner Party, a tribute to famous women that took the form of a particularized place setting representing each woman, the settings themselves laid out along the raised rim of a triangular table. It fell to a farm girl born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, to hold to tradition. Although Georgia O'Keeffe never painted food and did not cook herself, she appreciated others who did and would prepare superbly the fresh, simple foods she relished; and she enshrined their recipes just as Monet or Alice B. Toklas had, by keeping a food journal.

See also Arcimboldo, Giuseppe; France; Italy; Low Countries; United States .


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Phoebe Lloyd

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