The Artist’s Palate

Queen Nefetari makes an offering to Osiris, Tomb QV66, Valley of the Queens, Egypt, 1255 BC

Food and art have been linked since very early times – perhaps for different reasons, as with the striking fresoes in the Tomb of Nefetari,where the favourite queen of Rameses the Great is shown with an array of objects on three large reed mats, which she is offering to the god Osiris. As well as two large cowhides, with their tails still attached, these include legs of beef (or, possibly, goats), vase-shaped baskets full of berries, heaps of vegetables, and decorated loaves of golden bread. All these are carefully arranged, composed into patterns and depicted in vivid colours; they have a sacramental cast to them, since they are part of the tribute the Queen offers in order to progress through the afterlife. They also needed to be readily identifiable by the god, so that he recognizes the value of the offering made to him.


Unswept floor, Roman version of a Hellenistic mosaic, Museu Gregoriano Profano, Vatican, Rome

 Secular still life paintings of food were a feature both of ancient Greek and Roman art; here the thrust of murals, vase paintings, mosaics and easel paintings was decorative rather than sacred. Few, if any Greek paintings survive, but objects such as the mosaic Unswept floor in a the Vatican Museum, copied from an earlier Hellenistic original by the Greek Sosos of Pergamon, 2nd century BC, demonstrate a love of trompe l’oeil. Remnants of food are represented as though the white tessellated pavement were strewn with the detritus of a banquet – fish and animal bones, a wishbone, crab claws, half-eaten olives and sprays of grape stems, snail and mussel shells, pieces of fruit, crumbs, stalks and leaves – faithfully depicted in tiny pieces of stone and glass. A little mouse homes in on a fragment of food; like the rest, he is depicted from above, and casts a shadow to emphasize the ‘reality’ of this solidified memory: a sort of early installation art.


Still life with game birds, a dish of eggs, a wine jug & other utensils, Pompeii, from the House of Julia Felix, Archaeological Museum of Naples

The Roman frescoes which remain to us show still life arrangements which are much more conventional – to our eyes – and in fact similar to modern paintings. The branch of green peaches and leaves disposed on two levels with a glass carafe of water, from the frescoed wall of a villa in Herculaneum (Archaeological Museum of Naples), could easily be mistaken for a slightly naïve 21st century painting; the still life above, from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii, is even more recognizable as a conscious arrangement of beautifully-shaped domestic objects. These are the daily stuff of life, bought, cooked, served in other mundane items, eaten and forgotten. But the artist has rescued them, preserving them from time, decay and hungry mouths in order to present them as a satisfying composition of curving lines, solid forms, light, shadow and colour.

Ferran Adrià, an el Bulli fish dish

The current exhibition (until 29 September 2013) at Somerset House on Ferran Adrià and his restaurant, el Bulli,   is the logical end of this ancient link between art and food, and it includes all the elements of an exhibition of paintings – the history, a display of notes, sketches and models, and the creations of the artist (seen, in this case, through film) of his masterpieces as they appear in laboratory, kitchen and restaurant.

Ferran Adrià, Fire

Adrià’s dishes are still life arrangements in themselves – created to look, on the plate, like abstract patterns, representational depictions (like Fire, above), or even like idealized paintings. The boundary between food and art blurs, indicating something of the meaning that has been given to these apparently purely decorative images through the ages. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the still life as a complete and individual object all but disappeared, popping up as background details within sacred paintings, usually for symbolic effect (although these miniature still life motifs are often very beautifully painted.)

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini marriage portrait, 1434, National Gallery, London; detail

In Van Eyck’s Arnolfini marriage portrait, the background around the couple is alive with such small still life arrangements, which summarize their lives, history and present circumstances. Even the detail of the oranges on the chest to the left – one of them put on the windowsill, to ripen in the sun – is an indication of wealth, and the position of the sitter, who can obtain these exotic luxuries.

Caravaggio, The supper at Emmaus, 1601, National Gallery, London; detail

In a sacred painting, such a detail would be even more loaded with symbolic meaning – fruit can carry many types of significance, from the pomegranate which stands for the Resurrection, to the signs of rot on an apple, which symbolize earthly transience. In the detail, above, of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, the basket of fruit which stands on the table in the foreground is given importance by its very position between the actors in the sacred drama beyond, and the spectator. He is meant to notice this basket and to contemplate its contents, which include – as well as the pomegranate and apples – the grapes of the Eucharist and a pear for Christ. The vine leaves are torn and spotted, and the whole arrangement poised between mortality and decay.  At the same time, the basket is balanced on the very edge of the table, so that its weight ought to cause it to fall; the spectator is intended to see that it is the power of life vested in Christ which allows the basket to remain in its unrealistic and gravity-defying position.

Ferran Adrià, an el Bulli dish with an abstract design

Still life paintings from the 19th century until today have tended to be produced as purely decorative paintings, celebrating nothing but the ephemeral objects they represent – but perhaps this in itself is symbolic. The exhibition of Ferran Adrià’s work at Somerset House is ‘an ode to the creativity, imagination, innovation, talent and teamwork’ of the staff at the restaurant: in other words, the reproduction, praise and immortalization of a transient activity, with a very short-lived result. Perhaps no still life, of paint or any other medium, is free of an inevitable association with the reverse of immortality, and we value these compositions of beautiful or interesting objects to a large extent because of the shortness of their actual lives.

Stephen Rose, The grace of tulips, 2012, collection Mark Mitchell

In this painting, the sensuous qualities of the tulips predominate – the brilliant colouring set against the glossy monochrome ground of black table top and white porcelain; the curving, swooping stems and leaves – but there are notes in the composition which summon up very different ideas… The white platter carries overtones of a surgical dish; the tulips are bound and bruised; they are deprived of water, and will soon droop and die, and the coffin-shape of the dish will become even more relevant. Just as in the basket of fruit on Caravaggio’s table, this 21st century still life is in part an elegy for the transience of life and youth.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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