Museums feast the eyes: Their art is full of food. For 20,000 years, and right up to the present, the artists of the West have put into their painting things they like to eat.
Painters' tastes, of course, have varied with the ages. The mastodon and cave bear, so delectably portrayed on the walls at Lascaux, are no longer available. And tinned tomato soup does not appear in Western art before the age of Warhol. Nonetheless, certain gastronomic guidelines arise from an admittedly lighthearted look at the foods in Western art:
Though Claes Oldenburg and Norman Rockwell both have portrayed the hamburger, superior Western painters - Rembrandt. Chardin, Braque, Matisse, Caravaggio, Renoir, Manet, and their ilk - rarely paint cooked food. They prefer to show the raw.
The foods portrayed most often are in order of frequency: fruit, wine and game.
Still lifes of food are significantly outnumbered by those portraying flowers. Indeed, our still life survey shows that the flower vase-to-fruitbowl ratio measured in the galleries uncannily resembles that which may be found by counting decorations on dinner tables around town. (Sales of artificial flowers, similarly outnumber sales of wax grapes).
Though home truths of this kind resist scientific proof, let's essay another: Listeners and Eaters are different sorts of folks.
People who play chess, by and large, are Listeners. They tend to adore music. Connoisseurs of painting qualify as Eaters. Most of them love food.
Listeners and Eaters tend to be attracted to different sorts of beauty. Chess and math and Mozart, lovely as they are, do not require candlelight. The abstract beauty these things share is invisible. And perceiving it is not an attribute of age. Children have been known to master chess and math and Mozart (who was himself a prodigy). But who has ever known of an eight-year-old master chef?
Those regions of the mind that deal with abstract order may be, in mysterious ways, connected to the ear. Taste buds, on the other hand, seem to work in concert with the eye.
How else explain the fact middle-class Americans, who wouldn't touch raw fish if it was served to them at home, find the stuff delicious once it's been prepared by the artistic Japanese? Do we taste with out eyes? A team of savvy scientists some years ago discovered that breakfast eaters shun creamery fresh butter that has been dyed bright blue. (A serving of green chicken produced similar results.) Because funds for such research remain pitifully inadequate, students of the eye-and-mouth connection prefer to work in art museums. For two very good reasons: food decays while pictures last; and while meals in some restaurants cost an arm and leg, visits to museums usually cost nothing.
Though most still lifes of the edible show fruit or wine or game, there are numerous exceptions. Charles Demuth, perhaps America's best food artist, often portrayed vegetables. His watercolors show incomparable eggplants. Paul Gauguin has inserted a large if rather fatty ham into his fine still life on view at the Philips. And Manet, in a still life at the National Gallery of Art, offers for our delectation large, just-opened oysters. A silver basket full of cake is handsomely portrayed in a John F. Francis dated 1866, in a Corcoran's collection. In another picture in the same museum, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) presents a large dead English cod - uncooked. In another Chase, this one at the Hirshhorn, the viewer will discover two more uncooked fish, probably, Adriatic. The Hirshhorn's Chase is subtitled "Venetian Fish."
But in general game - dead rabbits, pheasants, venison - is a frequent subject. Though the beasts are often hanging, aging in the larder, we sometimes see them being hunted. Winslow Homer like to paint just-hooked fish and deer that are near death. The limp rabbits in a Chardin still life at the National Gallery are already there. There are a number of dead fish, dead chickens, and a peacock in Vassalo's "The Larder" at the same museum.
Wine is painted more often. Gauguin's fatty ham has a glass of red beside it. Painters seem to find light-reflecting glasses and tall just-opened bottles almost irresistible. Look for instance at the Philips' grand Renoir, the 1881 "Luncheon of the Boating Party." The meal has been finished (we do not know the menu), but wine and gleaming glasses dominate the foreground. Also on the table are a brandy cask, a plate of fruit, and a shaggy dog. (The dog is a rather original touch, but the fruit is entirely conventional).
Of all the foods in art, fruit is the most popular. The paintings of the West present a veritable cornucopia of apples, grapes, and pears. Particularly apples. Eve could not resist them, and neither could Cezanne, though he also painted peaches, pomegranates and pears. Cranach the Elder approved of apples, too; there is one in his "Madonna and Child" at the National Gallery of Art. Caravaggio, Chardin, Matisse, and Fantin-Latour are among the other apple painters in the Gallery's collection. Fainth-Latour also depicted pears; Renoir portrayed oranges; Vallotton liked tangerines. Few painters of age have been as fond of fruit as the late George Braque. There are many plums, pears, peaches, lemons and large grapes in his still lifes at the Philips.
Painting fruit makes sense. Because peaches, unlike people, neither talk nor move around, they are easier to paint. Cut flowers wither quickly; apples tend to last.
There may even be an economic explanation: portraying food saves money; you can, when you have finished, eat your subject.
A more likely explanation is that painters trust their instints. All true artists paint that which should be seen, always will and always have.
The delicious things of earth and sea were from the very start among their favorite subjects. Ice Age artists painted many animals they hunted. The sculptors of old Sumer, those innovative farmers of the Fertile Crescent, time and time again portrayed the goddess of the grain (who, by the way, appears again on the tip-top of the Capitol.) The olive branch we see in the Great Seal of the United States symbolizes peace, but it shows olives, too.
If cooking, atits highest is a form of art, painting at its highes is form of prayer. The tables in fine restaurants, with their fine cloths and their silver, their flowers and their candles, tend to look like altars, much as our hushed museums, with their marble columns, tend to look like temples. That is not accidental. Restaurants and galleries both evoke timeless rituals, and both feast the eyes. Our society is secular, but some ancient aspect of the sacred still graces fine food and fine art.