Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where the Sweet Things Are

As the range of food images in the arts is broad and varied, so are the images of sweets, whether natural fruits and berries or manufactured goods. We begin with older sweets,which are generally rendered as still life, as open-air markets or harvest scenes. Readers might appreciate knowing that among the best scholarly guides to this genre is Margit Rowell's Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997) and Anne W. Lowenthal, ed. The Object as Subject (1996).

Seventeenth century belief in the aphrodisiac power of food is only one part of
our interpretation of still life painting and market scenes, but it cannot be ignored (see Ardis Grosjean, "Toward an Interpretation of Pieter Aertesen's Profane Iconography," Konsthistorisk Tidskrift 43. 1974,121-143).

Left: Pieter Aertsen Market Scene with Vegetables and Fruit, 1567.

This is the age-old conclusion that "like begets like" (a Salem poppet caused pain in its likeness, Russians never shake a visitor's hand over the threshold, Cambodian soldiers in the 1970s sewed tiny Buddhist texts into their skin as protection in battle, and today, lack of a flag pin on the lapel connotes a lack of patriotism). It was therefore concluded that 17th century paintings, as well as music and fiction, caused viewers to respond in libidinous, perhaps spiritually detrimental ways. The depiction of elongated cucumbers and parsnips or overly large apricots and melons were a part of the linkage of food with lust, both bodily pleasures. Viz the film, "Tom Jones" (1963), the Japanese male practice of eating raw oysters to promote virility, and the art of Mel Ramos, below.

It is no different with sweets.

Sweets generally connote good luck, a long and prosperous life and, more recently affection. We used to buy mom a pound of chocolates for Mother's Day, preferably Fanny Farmer or Sees. Observant Jews dip sweet challa and apples into honey as part of the celebratory feast at Rosh Hashanah. Eastern Orthodox Christians bake a sweet cake called kulich at Easter to end the lenten fast.

And then there is the ultimate American reward: dessert!

The newer sweet images embrace abstraction and modernism through minimalism and installation art. In these contemporary innovations, food is often less a subject than a medium.

Still Sweets

Clara Peeters (Antwerp, 1594-1657), Still Life with Pie, 1611.

Peeters was one of the very few female painters of the 17th century. She was part of the grand Flemish art movement, a Golden Age, giving rise to the genre of still life, despite certain problems. Viewed as a humble genre, depicting humble domestic things, it was deemed less worth than portraits or battle scenes.

Peeters introduced into painting the Dutch (Netherlandish) "Breakfast Piece" that incorporated food and drink as principal subjects, well apart from religious distractions. She spread her tables with local and imported fare: meats, seafood and shellfish, hams and a variety of cheeses, fruits in season or from Spain, cookies and fruit tarts, assortments of bread and buns, and even artichokes. And pies!

James Peale (Chestertown, MD, 1749-1831) Fruit Still Life with Chinese Export Basket, 1824

Called "the first family of American painting," numerous Peales stood out among painters of our colonial and post-colonial era, all superb painters of still life, miniatures and portraits. Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Raphaelle Peale, Sarah Mirriam Peale, Anna Claypool Peale, and several others.

Antoine Vollon (Lyons, France, 1833-1900) Strawberries, n.d.

A master of both landscapes and still life, Vollon began his career as an engraver but then taught himself to paint. His still life images of food are particularly rich and memorable. A Mound of Butter (1875-85) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one such painting.

David Ligare (1945, Oak Park, IL) Still Life with Cherries, Peas and Flowers, 2001.

This is a still life by a very contemporary artist who preserves the traditions of 17th century painting - fruit embellished with flowers. This post-modern, neo-classical realist creates tromp d'oeil style paintings and presents them on an altar-like, architectural enclosure, which establishes dramatic soft-hard, close-distant contrasts. We know that the Pacific Ocean lies behind the enclosure because Ligare resides not far away in that pristine area just east of the Monterey Peninsula that Steinbeck called "the pastures of heaven."

Mark George Washington (born 1795-1879) Marion Feasting the British Officer on Sweet Potatoes, 1848

Known for portraits and landscapes, Washington here combines the two illustrating a story from our revolution. If legend can be defined as a narrative that carries more emotional weight than empirical evidence toward our belief, this this is legend.

Francis Marion became known as "the swamp fox", and was the basis of a recent film entitled, "The Patriot" (2000). Marion led his volunteer army of partisans in successful raids against the British in the swampy regions of South Carolina. The legend, according to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, is as follows:

Following the fall of Charleston during the Revolutionary War in May 1780, British troops quickly overran the interior of the state. With large-scale resistance at an end, local military leaders such as Andrew Pickens,Thomas Sumter, and Francis Marion carried on the fight by harassing the Redcoats in a dogged guerilla campaign. Marion, known to history as "the swamp fox," bedeviled the British throughout the PeeDee and Low Country.
According to legend, a British officer ventured from Georgetown under a flag of truce to treat with General Marion concerning an exchange of prisoners. Following the negotiations, the Swamp Fox invited the guest for dinner. The British officer was both appalled and mightily impressed by the menu - mere sweet potatoes. After returning to his own lines, the Briton reported in amazement that "I have seen an American general and his officers, without pay, and almost without clothes, living on roots and drinking water; and all for LIBERTY! What chance have we against such men!"

Sweet Harvests and Homes

Eastman Johnson (Lovell, ME 1824-1906) Sugaring Off, 1865

The painting is part of a series called The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson, in which the artist celebrates New England life and the annual ritual of gathering the sap from local maple trees. This happy community gathering marked the end of winter.

After the sap had dripped into buckets attached to the trees, it was boiled in a calderon until it thickened. It could be stored in jars or made into candy, which required more boiling, beating the syrup with a wooden spoon and pouring it into molds. Other Johnson paintings about food include Party at the Maple Sugar Camp and The Cran
berrry Pickers, Nantucket Island, 1879, below:

Camille Pissarro (St. Thomas West Indies, 1830, -1903) Apple Picking, 1888.

Pissarro strove to introduce people to rural scenes, generally of French peasants going about their rural occupations. In the late 1880s, he abandoned Impressionism and between 1888 and 1890, produced a group of pictures showing women working in the fields. In this effort, he employed the new technique called "pointillism".

Natalia Goncharova (Nagaevo, Russia, 1881-1962) Apple Harvest (or, Fruit
arvest), 1909.

See also, Peasants Gathering Grapes, 1912, below:

Goncharova was a distant relative of Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, and was a leading figure in Russia's avant-garde arts prior to World War I. Her primary aesthetic inspiration lay in peasants' folk arts and costumes and in the style of the Russian lubok, a woodcut engraving. Clearly,
Goncharova also closely observed the farm and harvesting activities of Russian peasants.

Gramma Moses (born Anna Mary Robertson, 1860-1961) Making Apple Butter, 1958.

Following the death of her husband, she took up painting in the 1930s and displayed her work in the local drugstore in Hoosick Falls, NY.

Louis Calder, an art critic and collector, discovered her there and, in 1940, she had her first exhibition, "What a Farm Wife Painted." Her subjects were the items and processes of traditional farm life as she had known them, and making apple butter was merely one of them.

Viktor Kuzmich Teterin (Tver Region, Russia, 1922-1991) Still Life with Stawberries and Girl, 1960

Hardly a still life as we have come to know it through three centuries. More a work scene, a Gramma Moses without her friends or a Jonathan Greene painting outside of South Carfolina. Teterin's work in landscape, still life and portaiture are held in high regard and are shown in the State Russian Museum and the Tetryakov Gallery, Moscow.

At the time that Teterin did this painting, Russia was still under Soviet management as the USSR. Socialist Realism was still the favored style, as this image shows, but Teterin's colors are lavish and the woman at the right does not seem overly dedicated to Soviet success. One of the many ways that Russians consume fruit preserves is to add them to their famous blyny (crepes) or mix it into their tea as a sweetener in place of sugar.

Margaret Ramsey (1932) Ice Cream Man, 1982

The artist explains: "[this painting] materialized out of scenes I observed while sitting on the front porch of my house at 308 East Mary Street in Dublin, Georgia."
Totally believable as part of summer's delight in suburbs and residential neighborhoods across the country, the ice cream man has been replaced by drive-ins and the roomy refrigerators in our modern kitchens. Children no longer look for a special stick (worth a prize, they thought)) or a cowboy star's face inside the top of a five-cent Dixie Cup. In fact, front porches, lacking AC and television, are deserted, too.

Alphonse Levy (Marmoutier,France, 1843-1918) Koughlkopf [Kugelkopf]
This round, sweet bread is similar to brioche and panettone and currently popular for breakfast.
Levy was a prolific cartoon artist, commenting on European issues and particularly on traditional Jewish life. He began serious work when he settled in Paris, where he was a busy cartoon artist for several publications. For a time, he lived in the Alsace region where he began his famous series on Jewish life, including scenes of people in the trades, Shabbat, the synagogue, education, couples and kitchens. He died in Algeria in 1918.

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