Artistic Inspiration: Still Life Paintings at the Met
I am lucky to have spent last Friday afternoon meandering through the Met. My first stop at my beloved museum is always the European painting galleries at the top of the Great Hall stair. There I visit my favorite girl: Marie Denise Villers’ Young Woman Drawing; religious and pagan allegories, and gaze at Old Masters’ still life paintings.
So much is conveyed by these static images of food, wine, flowers and vessels. The seventeenth century still lifes juxtapose nature’s bounty with manmade opulence (see images at right), to create compositions that are so delectable that they inspire an almost jealous craving to possess. This was absolutely intentional on the part of artists, as they saw the medium as ideal for addressing the theme of Vanitas (the vanity of all earthy things). However, the artists capture their subjects with such aplomb that the ripe fruit, the polished silver, the glistening oysters and goblets, the plush fabrics, become irresistible. Despite the popular condemnation of earthly possessions (thanks to Calvanism, in particular), I can’t help but want to consume what is in the paintings (nor can I help longing for the paintings themselves!)
Interestingly, Spaniard Luis Melendéz’s masterful compositions (above), have no pedantic overtone; they seem entirely focussed on representing the objects exactly as they are, resplendent for their natural state, without any sense of guilt about their eventual decay or their hunger-inducing beauty. Nineteenth century American artist, James Peale (best known for his standing portrait of George Washington) followed the Spanish style in an unapologetic tone, enjoying the natural elements for just what they are. This strategy of technical precision as paramount continues through the late nineteenth century with images of unadorned tables: a lunch of cold ham with a simple carafe and a newspaper to read while munching it; fruit and lilacs at the end of a bare counter—both wonderfully approachable.
Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, James Peale, 1820s
Edouard Manet of course makes no apologies, even though he includes a frivolous flower sticking out of his brioche bun on a gilt table with an ornate box. There is no obvious allegory, just the reveal of his contradictory nature, his astute ability, and the hunger it induces in voluptuaries like me.