Apr 19, 2015 | artists, art, exhibitions, paintings

Some delicious still lives

This painting by Claude Monet (The Galettes, 1882) caught my eye at the Inventing Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery, which celebrates the role of dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in the development and popularising of the French Impressionist movement. This was partly because I like looking at images of food – second only to eating it! I can quite identify with people who feel compelled to photograph a good-looking plate of food and post it on Instagram. But it also occurred to me that this delicious looking painting is really quite unusual.

Claude Monet Les Galettes

Food has long been a subject for painters as part of a still-life tradition, but in a very much codified way. We’re familiar with those Dutch paintings of tables groaning with fruit or vegetables, fish and game. Monet’s painting may not seem very radical but actually it is a total departure from tradition and demonstrates the way in which the Impressionists celebrated the ‘natural’ and the everyday and sought to depict it in paint. In the traditional still-life genre food doesn’t look half so enticing – I think this is partly due to the soft Impressionist mark making which captures a flaky pastry so well, but also because food in a traditional still life was still raw, as often as not. And maybe 17th century meals really weren’t that nice. Lobsters might appear cooked in order for them to be orange instead of grey, and some bread might feature or a pie if you were lucky. But they were highly stylised compositions and never appeared like an actual meal was taking place.

Although a popular commercial genre, when an artist often depicts food one still tends to speculate that they were someone who really liked their food! However there may be many underlying meanings. Impressionism sought to celebrate the everyday, and Monet gave a humble brioche loaf centre stage in his painting The Brioche (1870). He’s captured the almost-overcooked breaking-off crust perfectly.

Claude Money La Brioche

Monet’s lusciously thick paint just lends itself to making food look enticing – compare for example the shiny hard paint of a typical earlier Dutch work: Edward Ladell (1821-1886) Still Life With Prawns and Delft Pot. The highly realistic painting is really accomplished (that pot is absolutely beautiful) but the food doesn’t look quite so attractive when painted with such highly finished brushstrokes. A peeled lemon was a common trope and a demonstration of the painter’s skill, as was a porcelein vase, and that’s what the painting is really about. However the crisp white wine looks rather nice…

Edward Ladell Still Life With Prawns and Delft Pot

The heyday of the edible still life was definitely Holland during the 17th and 18th century, and many of these paintings are astonishingly and wonderfully over the top, for example Adriaen Van Utrecht’s Still Life With Dog and Monkey from 1644 which also includes a watching dog and a parrot. Others with their raw, butchered fish and meat would positively make you lose your appetite. Sometimes they would include a fly crawling on the food as a little trompe l’oeil touch, for example in Osias Beert’s Oysters and Glasses (date unknown).

One earlier artist however did depict cooked foods and ones that you’d definitely want to eat – the talented and unusual female Dutch 17th century painter Clara Peeters (unusual by virtue of her gender – there weren’t many female painters during this period) Peeters produced astonishingly accomplished works from her teenage years although we know nothing of where she undertook her training.

In this painting Still Life from 1607 Peeters signs herself in pastry with a P! I wish I knew what the silvery things are. This wasn’t the only painting in which Peeters inserted her authorship directly into the painting. In Still life With Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, from 1615, Peeters writes her name down the side of the silver knife. There’s yet another ‘signature’ in the painting, however, because if you look very closely at the pewter lid of the earthenware jug, you notice the tiny reflection of a woman in a Dutch cap looking back at you.

Still Life

Peeter’s work is typical of the  hard smooth brushstrokes typical of her time and although well painted it doesn’t have that tempting look – no-one painted food quite like the Impressionists. I love this crumbly, crusty pie by painted in thick broad strokes by Guillaume Romain Fouace in 1884:  Still Life Of A Pie

Guillaume Romain Fouace Still Life Of A Pie

Moving forward to the Post-Impressionist era, and this painting by Van Gogh is one of my very favourites of his. Still Life With Blue Enamel Coffee Pot, Earthenware And Fruit from 1888 may not feature much to eat, but I just love it for it’s beautiful colours – the yellowy green and bright orange contrasted with the black of the crockery and the coffee pot, all ready to pour and finish with milk from the chequered jug. It’s a still life with a twist – not just your typical Impressionist arrangement of fruit or crockery, but the social event of having coffee.

Van Gogh Still Life With Blue Enamel Coffee Pot, Earthenware And Fruit

In the twentieth century food was a surprisingly common subject for painters particularly of the Pop Art Movement which derived its subjects from popular culture and particularly from advertising (think Warhol’s soup cans). Wayne Thiebold’s main subject was pies and cakes, but also lollipops, ice cream sundaes and candy dispensers. Warhol himself said “Pop art is about liking things” and Thiebold  – previously an abstract expressionist – really liked cakes…..“Cakes, they are glorious, they are like toys” he said.

And finally, if you fancy something completely different and a bit more healthy after all that sugar – here is an insight into why the Japanese are so healthy: they are still eating the same traditional dishes from centuries ago. The great 18th – 19th century Ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige’s beautiful Bowl of Sushi which is truly good enough to eat. Each grain of rice is carefully delineated, which I think is very clever in a woodblock print.

Hiroshige Utagawa Bowl of Sushi

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