Walking through the Philadelphia
Museum of Art on an empty stomach
BY SARA DAVIS
PHOTOGRAPHS: COURTESY OFTHE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
James Peale. Still Life with Vegetables. 1827–29. Oil on canvas.
16.5 × 22.5 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the McNeil
Americana Collection, 2009.
Chester Harding. Still Life: Mountain Dew. 1827. Oil on board.
14.625 × 17.75 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchased with the
McNeil Acquisition Fund for American Art and Material Culture, 2014.
When you look down the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward the Philadelphia Museum of Art— columned, pedimented, like a temple on a hill—food might be the furthest thing from your mind. After all, food is not permitted in the galleries. Even beyond the practical considerations, we tend to think of art as nourishment for the mind, not the body. The romantics among us might argue that art is for humanity’s higher impulses: beauty, creativity, imagination.
But among the heroic history paintings of old and the abstract experiments of our own age, the Philadelphia Museum of Art houses a rich assortment of artworks that pay homage to the act of eating. To walk among them is to reflect on philosophical and practical matters that aren’t so different from the gastronomical discourse of today.
For the purposes of brevity, this tour of food-themed art will focus on American and European art of the last two centuries. Conveniently, these are all artworks installed on the first floor of the museum, which is open on Wednesday and Friday evenings as well as regular museum hours. Even in the permanent collection, the artwork on display changes periodically, so don’t wait too long to peruse these pieces. Walk these galleries and work up an appetite.
Artists have been memorializing sumptuous arrangements of food since the ancient Romans painted bowls of fruit on the walls of their villas. Over the centuries, still-life compositions of food have taken on different meanings, from showing off the skill of painters to showing off the luxurious appointments of their patrons. By the nineteenth century, still-life food painting was an established genre that artists could revisit and reinterpret.
In Still Life with Vegetables, James Peale is revisiting a style that might be called the golden age of still-life painting: Seventeenth-century Dutch artists painted detailed, luminous compositions of food and tableware that showed off their patrons’ wealth and alluded to religious symbolism. In nineteenth-century America, when Peale painted, a budding artist might hope to go to Europe to receive training in classic styles such as this. James Peale, however, received his artistic education in Maryland from his brother, Charles Willson Peale, before relocating to Philadelphia. James Peale’s vegetable composition skillfully deploys the sense of depth and warm golden light that characterized many golden-age still-life paintings, but his subjects are humble squashes and tomatoes that, in an era before expanding railroads and canals revolutionized food shipping, were likely grown in his family’s garden. (Today’s local-farmstand shoppers will probably recognize these squashes and nightshades as the bounty of summer in southeastern Pennsylvania.)
There is no religious imagery here; the composition seems to be an exercise of color and proficiency. Peale and his family were very interested in scientific classification; these precisely painted leaves and gourds could serve as a botanical guide for aspiring horticulturists. For another example of an American artist playing with this form, visit a nearby gallery for Chester Harding’s Still Life with Mountain Dew. (No, not the soda.) Like Peale’s still life, this composition showcases the artist’s ability to depict these three-dimensional forms realistically on the two-dimensional canvas. Harding is better known for his portraits, but here he shows off his skill with translucent and reflective surfaces. Light shines through the decanter and glass of moonshine; you can just see the outline of the apples beyond through the amber liquid, and the curve of an empty glass catches the reflection of a white canister. Decorative glassware and wine were popular subjects in the golden age of still life, too, but with the apples and homemade distillation, Harding has put a distinctly American spin on the genre.
Paul Cézanne. Still Life with a Dessert. 1877 or 1879. Oil on canvas.
23.25 × 28 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Mr. and Mrs.
Carroll S. Tyson Jr. Collection, 1963.
Gallery 161, Rotunda.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Peaches (Les Pêches). 1895. Oil on canvas. 15.75
× 22.25 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of F. Otto Haas and
partial gift of the reserved life interest of Carole Haas Gravagno, 1993.
Louis Marcoussis. Still Life with Fish. 1928. Oil on
canvas. 36.25 × 25.25 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Bequest of Fiske and Marie Kimball, 1955.
Like Harding’s composition, Cézanne’s Still Life with a Dessert also refers back to a classic composition. Fruit and pastry are tumbled about in a cloth draped and folded for interesting textures; an ornate glass decanter and flute play with light. But Cézanne’s still life interprets the light very differently: the contrast between light and dark isn’t so defined; the details of the fruit are not so sharp. The overall composition appears to be arranged closer to the viewer, as though displayed in a shadowbox rather than on a tabletop. Perhaps most distinctively, even in a reproduction we can see the traces of where Cézanne’s brush has been; the artist’s presence is announced in heavy strokes on the back wall and the mottled surfaces of the fruits. Cézanne painted hundreds of paintings of fruits in this way; he is said to have proclaimed, “I want to astonish Paris with an apple.” The simple, accessible, familiar shapes of the fruits facilitated Cézanne’s experiments with form and color.
Just a few decades after Peale and Harding painted to show their precision and the illusion of reality, European painters were experimenting with the idea that perception is subjective and reality itself an illusion. The artist’s role was not just to skillfully record—after all, a daguerreotype or photograph could do that—but to see and interpret the world. The artist also did what a camera could not do and left his or her mark in the form of distinctive brushstrokes. These visionaries created the dreamy, luminous Impressionist paintings you see as you walk through the Rotunda and through the side galleries. Cézanne was inspired by the Impressionists’ paintings but ultimately developed his own distinctive style, with bolder colors and more tactile forms than Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s soft pastel peaches.
By the second decade of the 20th century, World War I had the world cracked wide open and rapidly changing technologies for transportation, industry, and communication had ushered in new artistic and literary styles to keep pace. The most distinctive of these was Cubism, a style of painting that simultaneously reduced its subjects to simpler geometric forms and depicted those forms from multiple perspectives, resulting in seemingly bizarre configurations of bold geometric shapes.
The recognizable, established composition of still-life painting made an ideal testing ground to deploy this groundbreaking aesthetic. In Louis Marcoussis’s Still Life with Fish, the fish and the surface of the table are painted from an overhead perspective while the legs and edge of the table are viewed from the side.… Read More