About a week ago I had my annual physical exam. There was the usual poking and prodding, a little stethoscope work, and the drawing of blood. The doctor said I sounded sound. A day or so later his office called and said my cholesterol was 191 (down ten points from last year) but that my blood sugar was high at 215 (100 is normal). So, they put me on a 1500-calorie a day diet. The good news is, in the past week I've lost five pounds. The bad news is that three days later the diet had only lowered my glucose level to 170. I was given (yeah, sure) some pills to take and told to come back in two weeks for another test. So far, I've pretty well been able to stick to my diet, though frankly, Fileena's Milk Bones have started to look quite appetising. (You know, it doesn't say on the package how many calories they have?) Although I've already started to obsess about food, and I've always been a still-life painter, I've not yet started painting it (soon perhaps). But that doesn't keep me from writing about it.
Diet or no diet, painters have been obsessing about food since the Greek artist, Zeuxis, painted his bunch of grapes so realistically they were attacked by birds (in preference to the real thing). However the real obsession with painting food didn't begin until the seventeenth century when the still life first bloomed as a viable painting genre in the Netherlands and Belgium. Not surprisingly, in that preparing food was a predominantly female pursuit, some of the first and best food still-lifes were painted by women. Clara Peeters' Still-Life with Pie (1640) is as delectable now as it was nearly four hundred years ago.
Basically food still-lifes can be divided into three categories. There is the breakfast still life (the Dutch called them unpronounceably, onbijtjes), the kitchen still life, and the banquet still life. Clara Peeters' work tends to fall into the last category. It is rich, elegant, and fairly formal. Pieter Claesz's Still Life with Fish and Bread from about the same time is a breakfast still-life - much simpler, seemingly haphazard in arrangement, and more along the line of peasant fare with its filleted herring, pewter plate, beaker of beer, eating utensils and freshly baked roll. The colours are subdued, but not unappetising. The kitchen still life, on the other hand, was first popularised not by a Dutchman but by the French painter, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin early in the eighteenth century. Perhaps his most famous is one of his first, Still-Life with Ray Fish. This painting alone, with its gutted stingray hung from the stone wall in the background, its raw fish and oysters, numerous jugs, bottles, and other kitchen utensils arranged informally on a white tablecloth which partially covers a stone slab, won him instant acclaim as a painter and membership in the French Academy. Off to one side, a hungry house cat greedily eyes the impromptu feast.
Perhaps because of their national reputation as culinary artists, ever since Chardin, the French have always had a way with food in their art. Gustave Caillebotte and his Fruits Displayed on a Stand, dating from 1882, demonstrates that the Realists were not the only ones fascinated by the subject. While CÚzanne saw such items as merely shapes, colours, and textures to be played with compositionally, Caillebotte's fruit stand is a dieter's delight, a rich, colourful sight for hungry eyes. Excuse me while I go hunt up an apple.
In this country, though the still-life tradition is rich and long, it has not been as edible. The Peales of Philadelphia sometimes painted some pretty appetising fruit during the early 1800s, and Wayne Thiebaud just kills me with his bakery items, but perhaps the most striking food still-lifes to come out of the twentieth century belong to Andy Warhol, though he never painted a peach, plum, pear, or pomegranate in his whole life. Consistent with the twentieth century's mass marketing of packaged foods, his Campbell's Soup Cans as well as his Coca-Cola bottles, the ultimate 20th century "food" (glug, glug, glug), are symbolic rather than literal, underlining the fact that we no longer have to see the food itself to desire it. I can identify with that.