Food is so elementary. Everyone eats. Everyone has feelings about it, which makes it a great vehicle for art.
Food can represent class, abundance, social status, politics and cultural changes. Where we eat, what we eat and with whom we eat make good subject matter for painters. Which is why the current exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine,” is so jam-packed with message-bearing, savory paintings.
The exhibit, organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, opened Saturday, and the 60-plus paintings illustrate how American artists have used food as an expressive vehicle since the early 1700s.
It opens with the most American of food celebrations: Thanksgiving. This introductory gallery includes one of the show’s most well-known images, Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want, painted in 1942. This was from his “Four Freedoms” series, and even though it depicts the annual November feast, it was created during World War II, and a time of rationing.
Look closely, and you’ll see that the multigenerational family surrounding the linen-covered table is dining on turkey, celery, cranberry sauce and whatever is in the lone silver chafing dish. This is hardly the gastronomical excess we associate with Thanksgiving, and yet this is a beloved image that is as much propaganda as truth. It’s an extended family, an intact family, a happy family, gladly supporting the war effort.
Almost all of the paintings in the exhibit have a profound, or at least a secondary, subtext, so it is beneficial to read the labels to get the full picture.
It is also rewarding to see the names of female artists whose work was not championed during their lifetime. They are included because their work is lovely, and because they chose to paint the intimate details of home and family.
For instance, Elizabeth Paxton’s The Breakfast Tray (c. 1910), is a lovely small painting of an unmade bed and a napkin-covered chair with the remnants of breakfast. There is more, though. There are black evening shoes on the floor that were obviously kicked off in a hurry. The bed linens indicate there was more romping than sleeping, and the breakfast tray on the chair pulled up bedside suggests an indulgence — not a regular occurrence. Add up the signs, and it is obvious: A good time was had by all.
Even a painting of cherries by Robert Spear Dunning, Harvest of Cherries (1866), suggests an amorous encounter. A basket and two straw hats are abandoned on a thick carpet of grass, and the man’s hat and the basket are overflowing with the double-stemmed fruits. It is a study in color, light and shapes, but there is a back story of the cherry pickers and their flight from the frame.
Paintings of ribald gatherings are worth a second look. John Greenwood’s Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (c.1752-58) depicts the outrageous behavior of drunken sailors, and even the more sedate A Pic Nick in the Woods of New England by Jerome B. Thompson shows men and women behaving in ways that would not be socially acceptable indoors.
Some of the paintings are difficult to read. Shake Hands? (1854) by Lilly Martin Spencer shows a woman in a kitchen; she is standing over a work bowl and is holding out her hand in greeting, but it is covered with sticky dough. It’s impossible to tell by her dress if she is the lady of the house or a servant. The kitchen is strewn with produce and raw chicken. There is a stove, so this is a modern kitchen for the time, as she is not laboring over a hearth. Is hand-shaking an appropriate gesture from this woman, or is this a joke between the artist and her model?
Organized by time
The exhibit is arranged chronologically, beginning with traditional still lifes (considered the lowest form of art making by the Royal Academy, which placed portraiture, landscapes, narratives and history paintings well above). They weren’t weighty or commission-likely, but artists such as Raphaelle Peale enjoyed painting them. There are five of his in the first gallery.
Peale used his great skills to depict the bounty of America in Still Life — Strawberries, Nuts, &c. (1822). The glassware in his settings was American-made, and the china cups indicated a worldly sophistication. The luscious produce was grown in the Peale family’s greenhouses in Philadelphia. Homegrown was more common than store-bought.
By the mid-1800s, this had changed. More people were living in cities, and they were buying their food. A growing middle class meant fewer domestic workers, and more women were doing the family cooking. As families bought homes, they wanted art to hang on their walls, and paintings of still lifes became a good revenue stream for artists. Still lifes for dining rooms, libraries and formal living rooms were bought and hung, salon-style, in multi-rowed masses in their gilt frames. Popular subject matter included fruit or arrangements of favorite snacks, such as beer and cheese or candies.
Restaurant culture began. As more people moved to cities, the late-day meal became the family gathering time; breakfast and lunch were often taken on the run. Ethnic restaurants opened, and artists used these colorful gathering spots as subject matter for their paintings.
The changes in the early 20th century, such as industrialization and prohibition, were all tackled by artists via food, as were changes in art movements such as abstraction and modernism. The still life lent itself to abstracted forms; the elements were recognizable but flattened.
As the century moved forward and global concerns were weighing heavily, paintings such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942) captured the mood of desolation and isolation. It wasn’t a food-centric time for painters, but around the corner were the 1960s and pop art with its emphasis on brand names, consumerism and co-opted advertising imagery.
The final gallery of the exhibit, with Wayne Thiebaud’s Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert (1960), Roy Lichtenstein’s Standing Rib (Meat) (1962), Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup (1965) and Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life No. 15 (1962), shows the great consumer nation America has become, with our reliance on abundance, immediate gratification and prepared foods. Is it any wonder that the billboard images borrowed by Wesselmann of giant steaks and bottles of bourbon would, 50 years later, become billboards for bariatric clinics and 12-step programs?
“Art and Appetite” is a wonderful depiction of American history told through our dining habits. There, on the surface of the canvases, are glorious images of food and the way Americans celebrated with food and drink. But underneath the thin layer of paint are the dramatic stories that stitched this nation into what it is today.