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The artists' view
An Artist’s Delight
01
May
2015
Denis Rohrer

The pictorial genre of still life beautifully reflects the pleasures of the table but, as harbinger of more earthly pleasures, it is frequently interpreted as a symbolic message. Also called silent life, these works of art allow viewers to revel in appetizing and often refined motifs in superb table scenes, each revealing an aspect of culinary and social history. A small selection of the works of art presented at the Alimentarium in its exhibition An Artist’s Delight. Revealing the fantasies of still life. (3 May 2013 to 20 April 2014).

 

The silent world of earthly pleasures

This canvas was no doubt commissioned and is thus an example of how still life served to raise esteem for its owner. Such a variety of flowers and fruit from all over Europe was a luxury most people could not afford in the 18th century. A still-life painting of such valued commodities revealed the owner’s cultured taste for fine things. Ever since the first still-life paintings appeared in the 16th century, they have been used as a means for the rich and powerful to validate their social status. Hanging a still-life painting of refined food or precious objects in a prominent place in a lounge or dining room was an ideal way of illustrating the owner’s wealth.

A feast for your eyes

Whether set for breakfast, a light meal or spread with food, tables have always been a classical theme of still life and evoke certain aspects of the history of the art of entertaining from the 16th century to this day. Still-life paintings show, for instance, how styles of service evolved from à la française to à la russe and then the progressive disappearance of dining tables in favour of less conventional mealtime habits. In so doing, still life also illustrates the change in when certain types of food such as cheese, shellfish, alcoholic drinks and other beverages or savoury and sweet pastries are eaten during a meal.

In this painting by Abraham Hendricksz van Beijeren, precious objects such as the hanap(1) (tall, gold-plated drinking vessel), Roemer glass of white wine and silver platter draped in vine leaves on a vivid carmine tablecloth all create an image of great splendour. Yet beyond the sensual pleasures of such a feast, this painting reflects the refined tableware and distinguished manners of the Dutch elite of the time.

In 1530, the Dutch scholar Erasmus(2) (circa 1467-1536) published A Handbook on Good Manners for Children. It was to have considerable impact on the rules and conventions of acceptable table manners. Based on a premise of respect for oneself and others, Erasmus expressed the requirement to show self-restraint rather than behaving like animals at the table. Refined gestures went hand in hand with the refined objects illustrated in this painting.

 
 

Delicacies and choice wines add refinement

Fois gras en croûte is served on a decorated white earthenware plate. Crayfish lie in the foreground and a silver goblet and delicate blue stemmed glass complete the scene. This painting illustrates 19th century French bourgeois cuisine which combined the traditional with the sophisticated: Foie gras en croûte evokes the time-old craft of pastry chefs while crayfish were typically served on festive occasions.

Cheese and dessert

Marcel Lenoir chose to portray the end of a meal as has been the custom in France for hundreds of years, where a choice of cheese, fruit and alcohol is served (probably port in this example). Such food is often served together, although the order in which it is consumed has changed over the years, with cheese served either before or after fruit and dessert. Serving cheese at mealtimes is a typically French tradition. Progress in the dairy product industry and its mechanisation in the early 20th century, combined with development of techniques for making spreadable cheese broadened our taste for cheese as a whole. Oranges followed a similar path, though at a somewhat slower pace. As cultivation of oranges developed, they gradually evolved from a luxury types of food to a relatively common fruit.

Champagne, liqueurs and a sense of togetherness

The artist chose to portray a convivial moment sharing delicacies, represented here by a bottle of champagne and a champagne glass served alongside decorated pastries and eye-catching, brightly wrapped sweets. This canvas illustrates the immoderate tastes of the bourgeois in late 19th century Europe: They drank sweet alcoholic drinks such as champagne, not only at parties but also to accompany dessert. This added a touch of festivity, sophistication and refinement and set them aside from the working class.

A few apples lay spread on a table, in front of a stemmed glass and a bottle of plum liqueur. The artist chose not to portray wine, to deliberately evoke the success of liqueurs in France towards the end of the 19th century. Industrialisation facilitated production and thereby lowered the price of spirits, leading to a tenfold increase in alcohol consumption between 1820 and 1930. While the bourgeois delighted in such beverages, as liqueurs became cheaper, there was nonetheless a marked increase in alcoholism, especially in towns where taverns and restaurants proliferated.

Hanap: Drinking vessel of medieval origin, generally made of metal, stemmed and with a lid

Erasmus: Born between 1466 and 1469 in Rotterdam, died in 1536 in Basel, a canon regular of Saint Augustine, philosopher, Latin writer, humanist and theologist, considered as one of the major scholars of the Late Renaissance.

Denis Rohrer
Vevey, Switzerland

Denis Rohrer was Curator and Head of Collection and Humanities research at the Alimentarium from 2007 until the end of 2016.

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