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Perspective | A historical look at why painting food was a staple for great artists

Edible things are a staple of art, but that doesn’t mean they are simply food. They can also be religious and political symbols, signs of wealth and class, and, today, key markers of identity.

An old but powerful idea distinguishes between art (which is permanent, eternal and lasting) and things that can be consumed (food, wine and other sensual pleasures). Another aesthetic school argued that if you desire something with your body or with your own pleasure or status in mind, then it can’t be art at all. True art is above such supposedly crass things.

I asked Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post’s expert on food and dining, to explore some key works of art that raise these and other issues. I enjoy a good meal, but Tom sees food with the refined eyes of a critic. We looked at six iconic paintings and prints, beginning with a curious “feast of the gods” by the Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini and ending with a harrowing image of hunger from one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

It quickly became clear that many more distinctions were necessary to make sense of how images of food operate in art. There is food and then there is eating. There are essential differences between, say, caviar and a cheeseburger. But there are hierarchies to how and where we eat, too. Do we savor delicacies in a restaurant? Or feast on comfort foods? Or gorge on empty calories in squalid seclusion? It is also difficult to disentangle drinking from all of this, which raises questions of disorder, violence and sin.

Many centuries-old ideas about food seem quaint to us today, especially religious moralizing about gluttony, which has been reinvented in a new discourse of the body, health and wellness. New moral ideas have replaced the old ones, and food is no less fraught with ethical questions now than it was for the Dutch in the 17th century. Where does our food come from? What are the environmental costs of meat vs. lentils?

For most of our history, it took more energy and skill to paint a radish than to grow one. Today, photographing our food is as commonplace as saying grace before a meal a generation ago. Awash in images of foodstuffs, it’s easy to forget the long history of food as symbols, signs and moral markers. We look to art not just to recapture that history, but also to remind us that it is always better to eat purposefully, aware of a world that extends far beyond our own appetites and desires.

(National Gallery of Art/Widener Collection)

painting, where Priapus (the god of fertility) is disrobing the nymph Lotis. We would call that sexual assault, but the act is interrupted by the braying of the donkey at the far left. As an image of eating and drinking, it warns about the dangers of excess. But it also suggests a fantasy that remains vital to the way we think about food and drink today, especially in advertisements for liquor and fast food: that somehow we might enjoy sating ourselves without any adverse consequences. In the 19th century, philosophers suggested that God was merely a projection of human values. Here, without disturbing his deeply Christian worldview, Bellini uses the gods to project an ideal and impossible human fantasy of consumption.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-iPJLV-css mw-md pb-md font–article-body font-copy ma-auto pl-sm pr-sm”>Philip Kennicott: It’s hard to believe that this fantasy of appetite and desire was painted so late in the very long career of Giovanni Bellini, in 1514, just two years before his death in his mid-80s (it was substantially altered by Titian in 1529). The drama of the work seems to lie at the far right of the painting, where Priapus (the god of fertility) is disrobing the nymph Lotis. We would call that sexual assault, but the act is interrupted by the braying of the donkey at the far left. As an image of eating and drinking, it warns about the dangers of excess. But it also suggests a fantasy that remains vital to the way we think about food and drink today, especially in advertisements for liquor and fast food: that somehow we might enjoy sating ourselves without any adverse consequences. In the 19th century, philosophers suggested that God was merely a projection of human values. Here, without disturbing his deeply Christian worldview, Bellini uses the gods to project an ideal and impossible human fantasy of consumption.

Tom Sietsema: Food’s association with disorder or danger, hinted at here, goes back to Eve in the Garden of Eden, right? But there are plenty of examples of food as something to be enjoyed, as something more than mere sustenance. The luminous colors in this painting speak to that. I can’t pinpoint what the assembly is eating — apples? pears? — but wine is everywhere, in cups and jugs, an ageless and alluring companion to the gathering. Regarding parallels to advertising, we see Bacchus and Apollo here, the gods of wine and music. You can’t get more seductive than that. Gluttony or excess is only hinted at — see the nymph nodding off in the corner. These are the 1 percent, the beautiful people, being attended to and living the good life.

Sietsema: This painting revels in symbolism. Wine and grapes represent the Eucharist; the bright-red pomegranate acknowledges the suffering of Christ. I detect the passage of time here, too. Some of the grapes are fading, and the peel of pomegranate looks curled and dried. Only the wine, poured into an elegant Venetian glass, looks as if it has just been fetched from the cellar. I appreciate the little imperfections in the image, including the worn, chipped counter.

Kennicott: I wonder where one would hang this little painting. In the dining room because it shows things one might eat? Or in the bedroom, where you might examine it by candlelight when you’re having the 4 a.m. willies about death and mortality? The distressed tabletop shows up in still lifes by other Dutch artists, but it seems particularly potent here, perhaps because of the small size and intimacy of the painting. No matter how sturdy the substance, everything decays, and dies. I like to imagine a more contemporary, less Christian allegory for this image: That the pleasure in ephemeral things, the passing pleasure of taste and delight in freshness, can be more lasting, more substantial than the things we think are solid, permanent and foundational to our happiness.

Kennicott: This painting by the Flemish artist Frans Snyders was made perhaps a half century before Walscapelle’s 1675 still life, and it lives in a very different world. The allegorical sobriety of Walscapelle is almost silent compared with the clamoring pageant of abundance on Snyders’s canvas. And in this case we know that it was installed in the dining room of a stately home in England. Curator Maggie Bell included this work in an exhibition on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., “All Consuming: Art and the Essence of Food.” Bell sees this as an image of abundance, as opposed to excess, and a marker of Snyders’s wealthy patrons’ interest in a kind of “hipster” idea of agrarian fecundity and self-reliance. But it’s also a fantasy, with the food representing different seasons of the year, all gathered, and the African lovebird probably a sign of European dominion over the vast colonial domains. The cabbage at lower left fascinates me. It is huge, and perhaps meant as a slight tug on the conscience: Yes, we can stock our pantries with anything and everything, but the brassicas and root vegetables are still the cornerstone of a humble, healthy, unpretentious diet.

Sietsema: I want to shop in this woman’s rich larder! The eyes don’t know where to focus. Seemingly every square inch of table and floor is devoted to something beautiful and luscious, including items representing the expansion of global trade. I appreciate the deliberate placement of the bounty, with the more common vegetables on the ground and the dearer, seasonal ingredients set apart, in baskets or on higher surfaces. Food is fuel, of course, but also a source of delight, for all the senses. I can practically smell the mingling of flowers and just-plucked fruit and feel the bumps on the gourds and the prick of the artichokes. The quality of fruits and vegetables is underscored by the robust and contented appearance of the woman and boy in the painting. The message: You are what you eat (and money helps).

Sietsema: There’s a voyeuristic quality to this painting, not unlike when people pause outside a bar or restaurant and take stock of a place, if even for a moment. Viewers are prompted to judge. The artist is clearly poking fun at his subjects. All but one of them is low to the ground; two are possibly on the floor because they’re drunk. Check out the red noses, the half-grins, the smudged or ripped clothing of the illuminated characters. Is the one with the wine jug offering his friends more to drink or playfully cutting them off? Unclear. The scene is raw, the characters unguarded, thanks to alcohol. “Feast of the Gods” glamorized drinking to an extent. “Carousing Peasants” captures the darker side of the activity. I see headaches in the subjects’ futures.

Kennicott: As in the refined paintings of upscale Dutch interiors a few decades later, the characters in this drama are caught in a shaft of light from a window to the left. But daylight picks out only confusion and disorder, even the architecture. Everything is patched, clumsily repaired, or loose and provisional, like the brushwork. Even the Y-shaped wooden framing seems to be haphazardly buttressed, giving the impression of a house that is about to collapse — an unsubtle metaphor for society or the state that allows this kind of license. Bellini’s drunkards were seen outdoors, in the flattering light of the sun, drowsy but beautiful. Here, for the amusement of people who can afford to buy paintings, the lower classes are seen physically deformed by excess. The arms of the central couple form a loop, which suggests an age-old slander against women: She places the idea of lust in his head, which he executes by reaching under her apron.

white bread slathered with a shocking yellow spread, probably margarine, in this Pop Art statement about American consumption. There’s nothing personal, pretty or nurturing about the uniform slices of bread that seem to have spilled from an unseen plastic bag. Even the knife is standard issue. This is cheap food designed to fill you up, nothing more. James Rosenquist was a sign painter earlier in his career. The yellow in “White Bread” is the shade of a yield sign. I taste a subliminal message there.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-iPJLV-css mw-md pb-md font–article-body font-copy ma-auto pl-sm pr-sm”>Sietsema: “You eat first with your eyes” goes the chef maxim. In that case, I’ll forgo the bleached white bread slathered with a shocking yellow spread, probably margarine, in this Pop Art statement about American consumption. There’s nothing personal, pretty or nurturing about the uniform slices of bread that seem to have spilled from an unseen plastic bag. Even the knife is standard issue. This is cheap food designed to fill you up, nothing more. James Rosenquist was a sign painter earlier in his career. The yellow in “White Bread” is the shade of a yield sign. I taste a subliminal message there.

root vegetables for the Dutch, or the Christian symbolism attached to food that pervaded still life for centuries. White bread describes a pervasive idea of American culture: bland, conformist, mass produced for an audience that hates surprise. You can imagine that the yellow of the margarine might spread across the whole of the painting, joining the yellow of the background, until this dreadful bread disappears entirely in an oleaginous sea of yellow. But I wonder whether there’s a play on the idea of painting and printing. Each slice of bread, like a print, is essentially identical to every other one, but there is no such thing as an original slice of bread. As we stand in front of this painting, we sense we are seeing that elusive original — the perfect, Platonic form of white bread. And it’s slightly nauseating.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-iPJLV-css mw-md pb-md font–article-body font-copy ma-auto pl-sm pr-sm”>Kennicott: We are not so far away from the old idea of food as symbol, the earthy virtue of root vegetables for the Dutch, or the Christian symbolism attached to food that pervaded still life for centuries. White bread describes a pervasive idea of American culture: bland, conformist, mass produced for an audience that hates surprise. You can imagine that the yellow of the margarine might spread across the whole of the painting, joining the yellow of the background, until this dreadful bread disappears entirely in an oleaginous sea of yellow. But I wonder whether there’s a play on the idea of painting and printing. Each slice of bread, like a print, is essentially identical to every other one, but there is no such thing as an original slice of bread. As we stand in front of this painting, we sense we are seeing that elusive original — the perfect, Platonic form of white bread. And it’s slightly nauseating.

Kennicott: The great German artist Käthe Kollwitz simplified her graphic style to concentrate the moral force of this devastating image. As soon we move from eating food to feeding others, we enter the social realm, with obligations and responsibilities that transcend our own needs and pleasures. The emptiness of the bowls the children hold is seen as white space, while she uses the hauntingly dark orbs of their eyes to suggest the emptiness they feel, their hunger. This suggests not just pathos, but also anger. They raise both eyes and bowls not to the viewer, but to an unseen figure above and to their right. On one level, social failure is a shared responsibility: We are all to blame. But this image is more specific, more political and, hence, more powerful. It says these children are hungry and this is on you. The difference is vital, between feeling bad about the human condition and feeling angry about a failure of governance.

Sietsema: Artists tend to play up the joys of eating or the pleasures of the table when they portray food. But no discussion of food in art would be complete without telling the whole story. The sad reality is that a lot of people have gone, and continue to go, hungry. The brilliance in this lithograph lies in its bold simplicity: wide-eyed children raising empty bowls in the hope of being fed by some unseen benefactor. The scene is captured in black and white, emphasizing the direness of the situation. While the image is all about food, it doesn’t depict so much as a crumb. The children’s hunger is palpable. Honestly, I had to look away from the picture a few times.

About this story

Editing by Amy Hitt and Janice Page. Video by Allie Caren. Video senior producing by Nicki DeMarco. Photo research by Sophia Solano and Olivia McCormack. Copy editing by Jim Webster. Design development by Jake Crump. Design by Alla Dreyvitser.

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