Artistic Inspiration: Still Life Paintings at the Met

Still Life with Ham, Philippe Rousseau, 1870s

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!)

The Afternoon Meal
The Afternoon Meal (La Merienda), Luis Meléndez, ca. 1772
Still Life with Artichokes and Tomatoes in a Landscape, Luis Meléndez, c.1771

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.

From top to bottom at right:
Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, Jan Davidsz de Heem, c. 1640
Still Life with Silver, Alexandre François Desportes, 1720s
Still Life with Lobster and Fruit, Abraham van Beyeren, 1650s
Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, Henri Fantin-Latour, 1866
The Brioche, Édouard Manet, 1870

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4 Responses to “Artistic Inspiration: Still Life Paintings at the Met”

  1. sallytomatoes says:

    What a fabulous post. You enrich me and educate me, and I’m grateful to you. I think you’re an amazing writer. xoxo

  2. Isa says:

    I stumbled upon your very interesting writings and have kept it on my favourites.I love the paintings and being an art lover and having worked in the Tate Gallery in London, I like you am love the magnificent paintings of that period of time.It is ironic how now a lot of people eat Junk and donnot cook.I too have a love of food and reading old cookery books and learning all the time of the trends and history behind it all.

  3. Sally Lynch says:

    I haven’t been able to get to the Met in years….. thank you so much for taking me there with you!

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