The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vegan students complained about a painting of dead animals in their dining hall. The college took it down.

Gallery technicians adjust Frans Snyders’s workshop copy of “The Fowl Market” in an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. (Joe Giddens/PA Wire/AP)

The oil painting portrays a grisly but realistic part of life in 17th-century Europe: A bearded man is seen among various dead animals — a swan, a pheasant, a deer — that might later be served at a lavish banquet.

For a while, this replica of “The Fowl Market,” from the studio of Flemish painter Frans Snyders, was on display at a University of Cambridge dining hall, where students enjoyed buffet-style meals and gathered twice a week for their own upscale, dress-code-required dinners.

Yet, there was a problem: Some of the students at the elite English institution couldn’t stomach their food, they told administrators, while sitting under a giant Baroque depiction of animal carcasses.

“Some diners felt unable to eat because it was on the wall,” a spokesperson for the university’s Fitzwilliam Museum, which had lent the painting, told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday. “People who don’t eat meat found it slightly repulsive. They asked for it to come down.”

Hughes Hall, the Cambridge college that oversees the dining hall, bowed to the demands of its vegans and vegetarians. Last December, managers took down the artwork and returned it to the museum, which has since put together an exhibit to show off the controversial painting — and contextualize some of the complaints around it.

As news of the ordeal spread across the Internet this week, some mocked the episode. One person on Twitter called the episode a case of “PC gone wrong!”

“Please stop being wimps, privileged #YOUTH at top unis!!” another tweeted. “Vegetarian, vegan, whatnot, I don’t care: objecting over fine art isn’t going to make you tough.”

Victoria Espley, the Hughes Hall bursar, dismissed those reactions in an email to The Washington Post, noting that the college regularly changes around its artwork.

“Any debate over this painting that was on loan to us from the Fitzwilliam Museum,” she said dryly, “is really a poultry affair.”

In a news release for the exhibit, curators Victoria Avery and Melissa Calaresu offered a more serious reaction on the matter. Any concerns about the painting are merely the modern iteration of long-standing concerns about how humans’ eating habits affect the environment, they said.

“Many people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism as a political choice as much as a dietary one,” they wrote, “as we rethink our relationship with animals and their treatment in an industrialised world.”

Opening Tuesday and running into April, the exhibit aims to explore the relationship between humans and animals, as their treatment — and environmental concerns more generally ― maintain their hold on people’s attention and passion.

In an email to The Post, Calaresu, a cultural historian, said that the inclusion of so many different animals in the painting symbolizes power and reflects the same kind of variety included in contemporary menus.

“To modern eyes, it looks like a scene of death and desolation but all of these animals were eaten in the early modern period,” she wrote.

Similar scenes might have been displayed in dining rooms that served those very animals: Songbirds featured in the painting, for example, were often included in cookbooks from the same period.

Leaders of the Hughes Hall Vegan & Vegetarian Society did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.

Formed in 2017, the club sought to bring together students from one of the most international colleges on campus, organizing potlucks and chasing down the Hughes Hall administration to provide better meatless options. Both before and after the Snyders painting came down last December, the club also organized vegan versions of “formal hall,” a biweekly college dinner where gowns are not uncommon and jackets and ties are required.

Dining halls have emerged as a perpetual flash point in the culture wars playing out at American universities. Most infamously, an overnight scandal erupted around student complaints that the banh mi sandwiches served by Oberlin College, a liberal arts school in Ohio, constituted a form of cultural appropriation. (The Internet outrage machine didn’t exactly help, blowing up and distorting what began as a college newspaper article quoting just six students.)

But as the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibit tries to show, even people in Snyders’s era worried about what they ate — and how it affected them as individuals.

“Food choices are not only determined by political concerns about what we eat but also compounded by the moral anxieties which resonate around diet, self-image, over-consumption and our bodies,” the curators, Avery and Calaresu wrote.

Besides the Snyders painting, a replica of the original that’s hanging at a museum in St. Petersburg, the exhibit includes several other pieces that may provoke a strong reaction, the curators said. Also featured are a 17th-century feasting table, topped off with a swan and a peacock, and a gingerbread mold of a topless Mary II of England.

There are other curiosities, too, the Telegraph reported. They include Isaac Newton’s undergraduate notebook, in which the famous physicist declares his love of cake and marmalade, as well as a nine-step salad dressing recipe from John Evelyn, a 17th-century naturalist.