Tag: Still Life

Asparagus in Art

Asparagus in Art

The end of the traditional asparagus season is June 24th, which is the day of the Christian celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist. Asparagus, the “White Gold”, is nowadays available much longer, but traditionally it’s a real season-vegetable. In ancient Greece, asparagus was considered a plant with sacred and aphrodisiac virtues. Starting in the 16th century, asparagus was served in the royal courts of Europe and in the 17th century it was cultivated in France for Louis XIV who was, apparently, very fond of it. Only in the 18th century did the asparagus make its appearance on the local marketplace.

Adriaen Coorte (1660 – 1707), “Asparagus and red currants on a stone ledge” (c.1695), 34x24cm, Oil on Paper on Board, Auctioned Christies 2012, Private Collection.

Coorte produced small and modest still lifes. On this painting the asparagus, together with some red currants, contrast much with the larger sumptuous still live paintings that were fashionable in those days. Coorte painted on paper which was glued on board, opposed to the large oil on canvas or oil on panel pieces produced by his painter colleagues. Perhaps Coorte was more an amateur painter who had no studio space available and worked from home.

Jacob Foppens van Es (1596 – 1666), “Still Life with Fish, Asparagus, Artichokes, Cheese and Other Delicacies” (c.1631), 82x138cm, Oil on Canvas, Auctioned Sotheby’s 2011, Private Collection.

This grand still life by Jacob Foppens van Es is a painting where all the products are neatly displayed next to each other on a tabletop, as was the common way of displaying in the early days of still life painting. The two bundles of asparagus give it a bit of a frivolous touch. He belongs to the first generation of still life painters. Only later the arrangements become more artificially put together and food was painted together with flowers, animals, shells and various objects.

Jan Fijt (1611 – 1661), “Vase of Flowers and Two Bunches of Asparagus” (c.1650), 64x75cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Jan Fyt, a painter from Flanders, travelled quite a bit and worked in Paris, Venice, and Rome. This still life is painted towards the end of his career when he was back in Antwerp and it’s in a remarkable style with free and loose brushstrokes. Almost with an impressionist touch.

Edouard Manet (1832–1883), “Bunch of Asparagus” (1880), 46x55cm, Oil on Canvas, Wallraf–Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany.

Manet, a French painter and key figure in the transition from realism to impressionism, painted this rather big still live with asparagus in a free style, and shows with pleasure the beauty of such simple things like these asparagus on a marble table. It was painted for the French art collector Charles Ephrussi, who gave Manet 1000 francs for it, although Manet only asked for 800 as a purchase price. Manet then painted another much smaller piece with just one asparagus on the same marble tabletop. He sent that as a gift to Charles Ephrussi with a note: “There was one missing from your bunch”. Manet’s bunch of asparagus can be seen in Cologne, the one lonely asparagus is still in Paris.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), “L’asperge” (1880), 17x22cm, Oil on Canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Louise Moillon (1610 – 1696), “Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus” (1630), 53x71cm, Oil on Panel, Art Institute Chicago.

Louise Moillon is considered one of the best still life painters of her times. About forty paintings remain, which were mostly bought by royalty and nobility. At the age of thirty she married and stopped painting. Louise Moillon’s Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus is a composition of all seasons: cherries, grapes, plums and asparagus. All seasonal products, but on this still life painting they live together in a timeless harmony.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680)

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch” (1629), 46x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Let’s have Sunday brunch 17th Century style! And that’s best done with Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch Golden Age painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He specialized in the genre of “banketjes” and “ontbijtjes” (banquets and breakfasts), and most of them in a monochrome manner. Not much known about his life, not even an exact date of birth or death. But his legacy can be seen in the important museums all over the world. Let’s have a closer look at the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And let’s find the hidden message in what seemingly is just a banquet still life painting.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Banquet Piece with Mince Pie” (1635), 107x111cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This is the aftermath of a feast meal; a table filled with exotic food, luxurious tableware and precious glasses. The lemon and olives have been imported from the Mediterranean. The salt – expensive in those days – can been seen on a silver salt cellar. The mince pie, filled with meat and fruits and spices, is a dish for special occasions and on this painting has clearly been eaten already. A glass broke, the goblet fell over and the candle went out. But the message is shown exactly in the middle and in the front; it even sticks out of the painting right into our face. And that’s the piece of bread. The roll has not been touched. Bread in the Eucharistic meaning represents the body of Christ. Heda tells us that we should not overlook the Christian faith while being seduced by the pleasures and richness of food and earthly goods.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Ham, Bread and Precious Vessels” (1654), 105x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

And here is another still life breakfast painting by Heda. It’s from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. On the table a ham, lemon, oysters, the salt on the silver salt cellar, precious vessels, Venetian glass and even a “nautilus cup”, made of the nautilus shell imported from the Far East. This painting shows the wealth of a rich merchant from the Dutch Golden Age. But also here, on the left side of the table, is that very modest, untouched, lonely piece of bread. All the richness on one side of the table and on the other side, at that pure white clean tablecloth, the power of the Christian faith, symbolized by a simple bread roll. I guess the owners of these paintings, those rich merchants in the 17th Century, liked to show off their wealth and their taste for international and exotic treasures, but they also wanted to show how modest and down-to-earth they were. It’s true Calvinist behavior; almost as an excuse for wealth and success.