Arts Everyday Living: An Artist’s Palate—The Art of Food, Calorie-Free Highlights


For my Art Circle group, a blog published back in late 2014.  One of our topics re: our discussion of Creative Routines is food……


 Are you ready for a feast, calorie-free, with no chance of indigestion? An Artist’s Palate: The Art of Food Through the Centuries is a mini-exhibition full of culinary displays, both modest and extravagant, by a selection of of artists from the Renaissance through the 1900s.  The menu is diverse and may not always appeal to everyone’s taste, but it represents the significant role of nourishment in Western civilization.


Nineteenth century French painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) was an impresario of still lifes like the example below done in 1866.  It initially seems flawless: from the crystal clarity of the light, to the textured petals of the roses, to the mirror-like veneer of the table and tray. The colors are impeccable too, defining each object with a purity and richness unrivaled by most artists, often reinforced by a tactile quality that simulates reality. How easily you might slide your fingers across the smooth fragility of the white, red, and pink flowers, or reach for the delicate gold handle of the porcelain cup, or turn the pages of the blue covered book.

Yet, does the waxy appearance of the fruit make you hesitate?  Whether the orange, whole or already peeled?  The polished apples both in and outside the basket?  And the substantial pears? Are they basically unappetizing?  Could you even manage a bite? Or do you disagree?


Henri Fantin-Latour, Still Life, 1866, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


While the Cherries in a Silver Compote with Crab Apples are fresh from the orchard—juicy, lucious, and if you click on its image, magnified in size. Created by Italian Renaissance woman artist Fede Galizia (1578-1630) some 400 years ago, they probably once tantalized a Milanese nobleman and his family. For such fruit was available primarily to the elite clientele served by Galizia, who learned how to please her patrons possibly under the tutelage of her father miniaturist painter Annunzio.

Fede Galizia, Cherries in a Silver Compote with Crab Apples, n.d., oil on canvas, Private Collection


However, by 1921, when A Basket of Cherries was painted by Swiss master Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), the tasty fruit was popular and accessible to all classes  Appearing at first glance in this still life as ordinary, depicted in various stages of maturation, ranging from yellowish orange to dark red. Except Vallotton, who belonged to the avant-garde group known as Les Nabis, or “the prophets,” likely intended them to be a symbol–magical in quality, beyond everyday experience rather than simply the ingredients for a pie or a snack.


Felix Vallotton, Basket of Cherries, 1921, oil on canvas, Private Collection


Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine of 1620-1624 is a visual banquet that would impress even the most discriminating gourmet.  Its Flemish artist Osias Beert (c.1580-1624), a contemporary of Fede Galizia, has orchestrated a sumptuous presentation of delicacies a wealthy collector of that time would surely recognize. But do we need some guidance in 2019?

The succulent oysters encircling the pewter plate, the elaborate Venetian goblets brimming with wine, as well as the assortment of dried raisins, figs, almonds, and chestnuts are familiar. Although have you ever seen the brittle, spiky cinnamon bark candy filling the ceramic tazza in the center of the painting? The ornately shaped sweets in the Chinese Ming Dynasty bowl occupying the foreground? Notice, too, what is described as quince jelly in the lid propped up on our right.  Every detail beautifully rendered with extraordinary precision, surpassing any modern photograph.*


Osias Beert the Elder, Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine, c. 1620-1624, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


In contrast, Still Life with Oysters by French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) is a transitory meal, rapidly executed in thick, colorful brushstrokes; particularly the shucked seafood itself, sculpted in heavy pigment, typical of what was then considered a revolutionary style.  As if Caillebotte were in a hurry to start consuming his own painted cuisine, enhanced with squeezed lemons and the finest wine.


Gustave Cailllebotte, Still Life with Oysters, 1881, oil on canvas, Private Collection


Next, do you still have room for the Brioche by Edouard Manet (1832-1882), who was a major artistic influence on the Impressionists?  A homage to his French countrymen’s ingenious concoction of bread and pastry, golden with butter, and adorned by a expressive rose. Surrounded by some less fattening choices of grapes, peaches, and plums, yet always secondary to the ultimate confection.



Edouard Manet, The Brioche, 1870, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Among the resources for this blog are Impressionist Still Life by Eliza E. Rathbone and George T. M. Shackelford and others including Jennifer A. Greenhill (catalog of exhibition), The Phillips Collection in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 2001, websites of the National Gallery of Art* and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Discover the beauty of your kitchen and dining room with Through an Artist’s Eyes: Learning to Live Creatively.



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