As the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. Our Instagram feeds are flooded with pictures of meals, desserts or cups of coffee presented in an aesthetically pleasing way, but, despite our tendency to blame this on the existence of Instagram itself, the representation of food – be it in still life paintings or in depictions of people enjoying it – is hardly a new thing, as these pre-internet works of art can testify.
“Still Life with Lobster and Fruit” by Abraham Hendricksz van Beyeren, c.1550
Still life was one of the major art themes of the Dutch Golden Age, which covers the second half of the 16th century and most of the 17th century. Coinciding with the urbanization of The Netherlands, it was a time when artists began to separate themselves from the grand tradition of religious or allegoric themes and focused on depicting every-day scenes and objects. While the lobster is the focus of this painting, the details of the metal vessels and Chinese porcelain are also impressive.
“Christ with Mary and Martha” by Pieter Aertsen, 1552
Another example from the Dutch Golden Age, this painting not only mixes a biblical scene with a secular still life theme, but brings the still life into the foreground. Viewed from the pantry in Martha and Mary’s house, which hints at the upcoming feast and is, in fact, a 16th century Dutch pantry, the religious scene is secondary and, due to clever framing, may as well be a painting within the painting. Aertsen’s work can also be read as a “vanitas” painting, a commentary on how we give most of our attention to the passing and decaying and disregard the spiritual side of life.
Originally adorning the refectory of the San Giorgio Maggiore monastery in Venice, Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana,” now in the Louvre, is a canvas of impressive size, measuring almost 7 meters in height and 10 in length. Though the scene is a biblical one, the architecture depicted is classical Greco-Roman and the wedding guests – some of whom are identifiable historical figures – are dressed in the fashion of 16th century Venice. Once again, we are looking at a commentary on the matter of the sacred versus the profane. The guests are caught up in worldly entertainment and enjoying their desert, oblivious to the miracle that has just taken place.
“Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” by Clara Peeters, c.1615
Clara Peeters is the best-known of the few women artists of the Dutch Golden Age. While her peers specialized in flower painting, Peeters painted still lifes that mostly include food, becoming one of the artists that popularized this theme. This painting, which includes a reflection of the artist herself on the rim of the jug lid, depicts several types of Dutch cheeses – products with a rich tradition, appreciated world-wide – and almonds, at the time imported from the Dutch East Indies.
“Banquet of the Officers of the St. Hadrian Civic Guard Company of Haarlem” by Frans Hals, c. 1627
In the context of Dutch Golden Age painting, the technique of Frans Hals stands out through the application of visible brushstrokes, which give his paintings a dynamic, vibrant feel, in contrast with his contemporaries’ preference for clear lines and painstaking detail. Elected by the Council of Haarlem, the officers of the St. Hadrian Civic Guard (one of the three civic guards of the city) served their community for three years. This painting, depicting the banquet that marks the completion of their service, immortalizes their last time together as a team, thus functioning not at all unlike contemporary social event photography.
“Skate” by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 1727-28
One of the most celebrated French artists of the 18th century, Chardin is known especially for still lifes and domestic scenes. The “delicious” attribute is definitely controversial here, as skate is now not only considered an endangered species, but its status as a delicacy is highly contested. Icelandic fermented skate, for instance, is considered one of the worst smelling foods in the world. The skate in this painting, though, was likely supposed to be cooked into “skate meunière,” a classic French dish that involves the frying of seasoned skate wing, which is then served with a simple sauce. The cat, perhaps surprised while trying to steal some of the fish – and probably even responsible for the state of the not-yet-cooked skate – is a humorous and dynamic presence that animates the scene.
“The Oyster Lunch” by Jean François de Troy, 1734
Rococo painter de Troy is mostly known for depicting scenes from the life of 18th century French nobility. This painting, commissioned by King Louis XV, depicts noblemen enjoying oysters – which, although used for human consumption since prehistoric times, were at the time considered to be meant for the high classes – along with champagne. Nowadays, it’s not recommended for the two to be consumed together.
“Lorenzo and Isabella” by John Everett Millais, 1849
This painting by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais is based on an episode from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” which was also the source of the John Keats poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” The daughter of a wealthy merchant, Isabella is in love with Lorenzo, an employee of one of her brothers. Upon finding out about the affair, Isabella’s brothers murder Lorenzo. After Lorenzo’s ghost appears to his lover, she digs up the body and takes the head, which she buries in a pot of basil that she keeps by her side for the rest of her life. Millais depicts the moment when Isabella’s brothers become aware of the affair. By this time, the feast is almost over and fruits are served for dessert. The blood-orange that Lorenzo offers Isabella, as well as the nutcracker that her angry, thuggish brother points in his direction, are signs of the impending murder.
“Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881
Combining portraiture, still-life and landscape painting, this canvas portrays a few of Renoir’s friends – including his future wife Aline, the artist Gustave Caillebotte and the stage actress Jeanne Samary –, relaxing during a boating trip along the river Seine. The various dynamics and relationships between the people present have been the subject of much speculation. The luncheon itself is quite light, with plenty of fruit, but the party-goers do seem to enjoy a wide variety of drinks.
“Still Life with Apples and Oranges” by Paul Cézanne, 1895
Hailed as the father of modern painting, young Paul Cézanne abandoned the theme of still life in favor of portraiture, every-day scenes and landscape painting, only to return to it in his later years. The influence of Dutch Golden Age still lifes is obvious in the artfully arranged white cloth and careful positioning of the fruits, but the compact, geometric style is decidedly modern.
Anca Rotar is a Romanian-born writer, over-thinker and caffeine addict. She is the author of two books, Hidden Animals and Before It Sets You Free, both available from Amazon.com. Among her interests, which she finds it hard to shut up about, she counts fashion, yoga, city breaks and deadpan sarcasm. She is also currently studying Japanese, so wish her luck. You can sample bits of Anca’s creative writing here.