The banquet in art: real or ideal?

20 Oct 2013 05.54 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

The popularity of the banquet as an artistic motif is documented throughout art history. Beginning with the Greeks and Romans and continuing through medieval art, the banquet truly found its most visible form in the still lifes of the Dutch masters. Prominent amongst them was Willem Kalf (1619-1693) whose intense realism and mastery of the effects of light and shadow have meant his depictions of food in art have permeated the present day.


Kalf's still lifes

In documenting the banquets of the Dutch upper and middle classes, Kalf captures exquisite detail. Citrus fruits like lemons and oranges are detailed in rich hues with stippled highlights catching the light, allowing the viewer to sense the rippled texture of the fruit, and, even, imagine running their fingers across it. Some lemons are peeled – a visual motif in vanitas art capturing the beauty but bitterness and transience of life – one can imagine the sweet scent each curve of peel would release. A rockmelon leans casually against a Ming vase, an allusion to the wealth and culture of the patrons commissioning and purchasing Dutch baroque art, its open flesh reminiscent of the sensuality and abundance of life at the top of the 17th century social pyramid. The food literally appears good enough to eat.


In many ways, however, the still lifes of the Dutch realists represented an ideal form of the real. They were honorific – commissioned or sold to rich patrons to show off the extent of their indulgent hospitality and were termed pronkstilleven meaning “ostentatious still life”. Here the arrangement takes on a life of its own with exotic fruit, seafood and art objects (like vases, silver and glassware and knives) documenting the taste and purchasing power of their Dutch owners. For this reason – although the fruits and vegetables depicted in Kalf’s work are depicted in almost-photographic reality (I’ve seen similar lemons in a glossy supermarket advertisement or a rockmelon just as luscious in a grocery store display) they more represent the aspirations and sensibilities of a select segment of Dutch society then an accurate portrayal of produce. For his wealthy benefactors, Kalf mastered the the perfect arrangement of ornate and tasteful objects to create a signpost indicating culture, class and opulence.


The representation of food in Kalf’s still lifes can be contrasted with the illustration of produce in his series of farm interiors. Here, the idealist symbolism and arrangement of the pronkstilleven, and its vanitas themes emphasising the transience of life, is dropped in favour of a more naturalist portrayal of rural life. Here, the specific and perfect qualities of the fruits and vegetables are no longer the focal point of the artwork. Instead, the interior as a whole and the scene of industry is where our attention is directed. The produce is off centre, discarded or involved in a harvesting process. In short, it is not captured in such detail. 


Kalf's farm interiors

Radishes and spinach lie freshly picked and limp on the floor, while pumpkins are hastily set-aside in a caged wooden basket. Lettuce, cabbages and half cut greens litter dusty and unadorned interiors.  Meticulous arrangement is left behind as the haphazard, practical and fluid nature of rural life is explored.


The masterful control of lighting – so explicit in Kalf’s still lifes – is more relaxed making the images less atmospheric. Interestingly, the produce chosen is not concentric. Kalf has chosen rectangular and oblong shapes to explore rather than the perfect circles of the pronkstilleven. Portrayals of the fruit and vegetables then can be assumed to be less idealised and more realistic.


The dichotomy between Kalf’s rural scenes and his still lifes shows the effect of context and artistic intent on the portrayal of food in art. In his still lifes, the spherical beauty and form of the fruit is promoted, while in his peasant interiors the robustness and vitality of the produce is highlighted amidst a pragmatic illustration of rural life.


willem kalf  
still life  
banquet in art  
food art  

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