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Food in Art, Art in Food

How artists attempt to convey the taste, smell, and feel of food in their artwork differs across time, place, and the artist’s personal style.

One of the first art lessons that I can remember from school is the still-life.

Our teacher brought forth all sorts of odds and ends to render pleasingly on paper with our crayons and colored pencils, while showing us the standard Art Docent canvases of Dutch Masters and French Academy painters with their oranges (peeled and unpeeled), their pewter mugs and candlesticks, and their partially sliced loaves of bread.

Figure 1: Pair of miniature still life paintings by Bert Beirne (American, 20th/21st century), from Oakridge Auction Gallery's Around the World in 80+ Lots auction, October 18, 2019.

Not all of the food depicted in these artworks is enticing, although the technique and artistry may be compelling: quite typically, the classical still life includes vignettes of rotting fruit and decaying fish or meat, bread that is going stale or mouldy, and wine that has likely been sitting in that pewter cup collecting dust for days. 

On the other hand, modern food commercials, with the aim of making hamburgers, french fries, ice cream sundaes, or other delicious morsels look mouth-wateringly delicious, often eschew real food completely in favor of other materials more suitable to convey color and texture on screen. My favorite example involves using engine oil instead of maple syrup, because the real syrup absorbs too quickly into those fluffy pancakes and waffles that are the piece de resistance of any American breakfast.

Depicting food in art requires a different kind of artistry than creating art from food, which is the goal of any self-respecting restaurateur or chef - or, for those who have seen any episode of The Great British Baking Show, any baker. Without being able to immediately engage the senses of taste, smell, or texture, the artist must nonetheless create a visual depiction of food that tricks the other senses into believing the missing sensory details.

[Still Life with Violin and Fruit]

How artists attempt to convey the taste, smell, and feel of food in their artwork differs across time, place, and the artist’s personal style. For example, both the Bert Beirne and B. Stewart still life paintings in our upcoming October sale feature fruits - including a citrus fruit like a lemon or an orange and grapes. Beirne’s lemons bring the waxy skin of the fruit to the forefront, coming across as shiny and thick. The bright yellow, with its subtle variations in tone, gives the lemons a solid, realistic semblance despite the softness of the painter’s style.

While Beirne’s painting style makes his lemons lifelike, the same qualities of brightness, play of light, and weight make his grapes appear somehow lumpy and over-abstracted. By contrast, the grapes depicted by B. Stewart in his Still Life with Violin and Fruit are somehow crisper and more vivid, although the overall color palette is darker in tone and the artist’s style renders the other fruits in a manner which suits the fuzziness of the peaches but not the orange tucked away in the middle of the fruit bowl. Stewart’s orange lacks the appeal of the bright, waxy skin Beirne captures of his lemon; on the other hand, the subtle tones and balance of light and dark of Stewart’s grapes make those more enticing than the Blue Grapes illustrated by Beirne.

The take-away? Depicting food in art is not as easy as my early school days would make it out to be. Balancing visual characteristics of crispness or abstraction, color tones and shading, and the play of light and form offers artists a plethora of ways in which to convey the food-ness of their still life arrangement, but the subtle manipulation of that balance to evoke a sensory feast while staying true to the artist’s visual hermeneutic is a challenge that rivals the artistic creations of chefs and bakers.


About the Author

Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.

Katharina Biermann

Fri, Aug 30, 2019 10:23 AM

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