Food Still Lifes in American Art
Food as a subject for artists has been used throughout the ages as a symbol of class, gender and commerce. From scenes of Greek and Roman banquets to Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, food in art has conveyed political and social status, intertwining social commentary on gender roles, diet, race and industrialization as a way of looking at our cultural identity.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American artists elevated the genre of still life painting, giving focus to ordinary, everyday objects. Still lifes with food as the central subject conveyed ideas about social values and the new wealth and abundance in our young country. John F. Francis (1808-1886) was an American painter who excelled at this genre. He is considered the master of the “dessert and luncheon” painting where he imbued simple items like tea cakes, oysters and lemons with an importance usually given to traditional, academic subjects.
We are offering two Francis paintings in our April 22nd auction, both of which are very good examples of the artist’s work in this genre. Painted in 1872, The Dessert is a beautifully composed table still life with an imagined landscape view in the background. The table articles and the foods represented are not fancy, but they are treated in a manner that raises their importance beyond the quotidian. The bowl of strawberries is a common theme in nineteenth century still lifes, often seen as a footed bowl of strawberries in the work of Severin Roesen. Considered one of the best still life painters in America in the mid-nineteenth century, Roesen also used the effect of a landscape background in his compositions. Many of the compositional elements used by American still life painters came from looking at seventeenth century Dutch still life painting. Another subject treated by the Dutch and painted by American artists was the still life with oysters. Francis’ painting Oysters with Trenton Biscuits, also being offered in our auction on April 22nd, is an example of this subject.
Other examples of American food still life painting in our April 22nd auction include Still Life with Fruit, attributed to Morston Contantine Ream, American School, Still Life with Fish, and William Harnett’s Asparagus.
The late nineteenth century saw dramatic social, political and industrial changes in America. While the Gilded Age painters depicted opulent glamour and the conspicuous consumption of the very wealthy, many still life painters chose the simple foods of the working class as their subject and social commentary.
The use of food as the central subject of American still life painting can be found throughout the twentieth century. In the 1960s, Pop artists Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and others used food to focus on issues of modern mass production and its effect on society. Graphic design and advertising were incorporated into “high art”, and like their nineteenth century predecessors, Pop artists used food as a commentary on American appetites and culture. Wayne Thiebaud’s simplified renderings of cakes, gumball machines and pies exemplify the use of food as subject, incorporating advertising techniques to create seemingly minimal still lifes that draw on American nostalgia and our collective food memories.
We will be offering several fine examples of Thiebaud’s work in printmaking mediums in our June 3 20th Century, Modern & Contemporary auction.
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920): ‘Cones’, etching, 1964. June 3, 2017, Lot 266