(National Gallery of Art)

Antoine Vollon (b. 1833)

Mound of Butter, 1875/1885

Displayed at the National Gallery of Art

Great Works, In Focus

Pass the bread

Antoine Vollon’s ‘Mound of Butter’ will make your mouth water

Antoine Vollon’s “Mound of Butter” (1875/1885) is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (National Gallery of Art)

People see “Mound of Butter,” a painting by Antoine Vollon at the National Gallery of Art, and immediately want to spread it on a chunk of hot bread and eat it. Oil paint and butter are nothing alike. But no painter in history has done a better job of making us imagine they could be the same substance.

Antoine Vollon’s “Mound of Butter” (1875/1885) is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (National Gallery of Art)

“Mound of Butter” is one of the most popular paintings at the National Gallery of Art. Its cult status is unlikely, given the stellar company it keeps (all those celebrity impressionists!) and given that not even experts in 19th-century French art tend to know much about Vollon.

But he was a star in his day. A specialist in still lifes, he was, “perhaps, the greatest painter living,” according to one contemporary critic. “He can paint with anything. The brush, the palette-knife, the finger, the coat-sleeve . . . each is employed where it alone can do the work.”

It’s a description I love. It makes Vollon, who moved to Paris from Lyon in 1859, when he was 26, sound like a handyman or roustabout, always willing to dive in, using whatever tool is at hand to get the job done. Émile Zola hailed Vollon as the first “worker” painter to come along since Gustave Courbet.

But what about the butter? Accustomed to 4-ounce sticks, Americans aren’t used to seeing butter piled up like a greasy sand dune. But in Vollon’s day, this was how it came. The cream skimmed from cows’ milk was allowed to age until it soured slightly (becoming “cultured”), then lightly churned to shake out the butter in tiny lumps. The lumps were kneaded by hand or worked with a wooden spatula to squeeze out residual milk. (Milk turns rancid more quickly than fat, so the more milk that was expressed, the longer the butter’s shelf life.) The resulting pile-up would be wrapped in cheesecloth and kept in a cool place.

Here, the cheesecloth has slipped from the mound, like a loose nightgown. The two eggs at the base of the mound provide a counterpoint — a sense of contained and purposeful form against the random mass of the butter.

But it’s the creamy yellow of the butter to which your eyes adhere. In a kind of alchemical voodoo, Vollon has pushed — you almost want to say smeared — the illusionism we associate with great art into new territory, like a visual version of onomatopoeia.

Only one question remains: Who’ll fetch the bread?

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.