Food Becomes The Subject Of Art



Photograph by Anthony Pira

Food and drink have been rendered since antiquity. Paleolithic art, painted and engraved on caves and rock shelters, depicts deer, wild cattle, horses, and mammoths—the usual quarry of hunters, and therefore food of the period. Egyptian hieroglyphics represent food in myriad ways. The tomb of Ramesses III displays a royal bakery and the ancient bakers’ methods of baking.

By the Renaissance, the daily ritual of eating and drinking had become a frequent theme. Artists drew inspiration from the natural world and began to incorporate foodstuffs in devotional and secular images. Still lifes of food celebrated harvests and revered natural bounties. Ultimately, art opened a window through which the diets, culinary customs, and eating habits of different cultures and people were made visible.

Fast-forward to the New World. Artists embraced the newness of the land and captured its culture and cuisine. Later, Ashcan School artist John Sloan eavesdrops over diners’ shoulders at a popular Italian restaurant in New York in his painting Renganeschi’s Saturday Night (1912). Still later, Edward Hopper zooms in on a solitary coffee drinker in Automat (1927). More recently, Norman Rockwell brushed to life Thanksgiving dinner in Freedom from Want (1943), depicting happy faces and a delectable turkey on a platter as the focal point. Pop Art grabbed the publics attention in the mid-20th century, and Roy Lichtenstein’s Turkey (1961)—a caricature of a golden fowl in a bowl—is reflective of the new aesthetic.

North Shore artists, too, garner inspiration from food. Photographers Paul Osborne and Catherine Davis work collaboratively to produce classic images reminiscent of European Renaissance paintings. Lawyers-turned-artists, the couple was deeply impressed by an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston by 18th-centurySpanish master Luis Meléndez. Part of their attraction to his work was the artist’s use of rich, warm golden tones to render light. “We wanted to emulate that,” Davis says.

Meléndez described his work as offering “an amazing cabinet with all types of foodstuff that the Spanish climate produces.” For Osborne and Davis, their work serves the same purpose. “What these still life artists wanted to show was the bounty of the land,” says Davis. “As a cook, I started to shop for things that looked beautiful as well as tasted beautiful.” She set up subjects using natural light and worked with pixels instead of brushes.

“The images we produce are to show off what local produce in New England is,” Osborne says. “Organic, locally sourced food is a topic of great discussion at this point. It is also a celebration of our human endeavor and something of an agricultural heritage we all share. We hope we are celebrating that in our photographs.” Employing a lens, they capture the painterly qualities of apples, peaches, asparagus, eggs, cheese, and bottles of wine. Collectively, the photos emote a reverence for common edibles.

Newburyport artist Susan Spellman, a freelance illustrator and fine arts painter, works in a realistic style using oils. She paints from life and uses natural light, sometimes in combination with studio light in order to accent shadow details. “I like to control shadows as part of the composition,” she says. “I’m around food a lot, so I paint things with meaning to me.”

Spellman credits some of her inspiration to the painting style of Oregon–based artist Carole Marine, author of Daily Painting, who encourages artists on her website to create one small painting nearly every day “without getting bogged down by perfectionism, procrastination, or any myriad of things,” as she states in the preface of her book. Spellman also gets inspiration from Wayne Thiebaud, whose “sweet everydayness of his cake and pie pictures looked like cousins of Andy Warhol’s soup cans,” a Smithsonian writer penned, “but without the coolness and irony.”

Spellman says, “They most likely influenced me in terms of thinking about everyday objects around us, and how they can be used to explore color, composition, and the joys of food.”

She often arranges food and objects like brass teapots, pitchers, wine glasses, and bottles for more elaborate compositions. A favorite of hers depicts cherries divided between a small cup and a green Styrofoam basket; the red of the cherries sharply contrasts with the green packaging.

Sandra Galda also showcases food in her oil paintings. “Nothing is more beautiful than food that brings you health and life,” she says. “It’s something that’s stylish in any culture. Everyone eats. Everyone loves food, and it’s a subject people don’t tire of.” While she tackles larger works, she experiences instant gratification and gains technical skill by practicing “painting starts”—an exploratory method for testing composition, color, and values on a small scale before committing to a larger finished work. “Sometimes it’s fun to do those fast paintings. Food [doesn’t] last for three or four months. A fast, happy, quickly accomplished style is great for food. You can capture the essential beauty of food before it perishes,” she explains.

Lee Rowan is fascinated by the color, texture, and shapes of fruits and vegetables. “Pears are these voluptuous things with great big bellies,” she says. “Plus, everyone likes to eat, so it’s a popular subject.” She paints from photos she takes at farmers’ markets as well as compositions she arranges in her studio. Like Spellman, Rowan was influenced by Carole Marine’s painting method. “I have taken several workshops from her. Some small food paintings morphed into large food paintings.” Her paintings of eggs lying in nests attract special interest. For those she uses pastels to capture the eggs’ tonal variations and delicacy. “There’s something very comforting about nests with little eggs sitting in there. People bring me old nests all the time.”

Debbie Shirley paints out of a studio in Haverhill, using acrylics in a contemporary realism style “with a little bit of a twist.” Her background as a graphic artist taught her composition and design as well as how to use cropping and lighting to make her work unique. She paints “off the canvas,” meaning a part of the subject dips out of sight, nudging viewers to imagine what’s not there—similar to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory about writing: Omission can be as effective as, if not more effective than, elaborate detail to convey meaning.

Shirley prefers early morning or late afternoon natural light and works with still lifes as much as possible. She sometimes takes photographs of her arrangements so she can return later to reference the light at the time the photo was taken. She only uses artificial lamplight to emphasize shadows. In her top-down views of subjects, she “likes to play with surfaces underneath and with patterns as backdrops.”

Still lifes of food, Shirley believes, include a social dimension, too. She echoes what other artists have said: Everybody eats, and therefore there’s a natural attraction to this subject. “It’s a lot of fun when I do shows. People come to talk to me about food. I had a painting of a bowl of pears at a show and soon two ladies were sharing recipes. It provides a connection to a lot of people.”

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