BEFORE BMWs, there were soup tureens.
People have likely sipped soup for millennia, but beginning with the Baroque period they found a way to make it frivolous and fashionable all at once.
Even cream of mushroom would muster some pizazz in the vessels on display at the Boston Athenaeum Gallery, where the Campbell (yes, the "mmm ... mmm good" folks) Museum is exhibiting part of its collection of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century tureens.
At first glance, it seems that soup has found popularity primarily when times are lean - or when people wish to be leaner. Campbell's exhibition, however, titled "Kings, Queens and Soup Tureens," aims to convince the viewer that soup was once - and can be - more than the ultimate sustenance food.
Catherine Magee, director of the Campbell Museum in Camden, N. J., asserts that while the contents of the bowl have changed over the centuries (swan soup is now a rarity), "the relevance of soup to the meal remains the same today," she says, as in the time "of kings and queens."
Consequently, in dedication to the trustworthy staple, the Campbell Museum's permanent collection also includes contemporary tureens as well as antique pieces such as those shown at the Athenaeum, and any work of art associated with the service of soup.
Comprehensiveness deserves congratulations; yet art for art's sake is not quite at play here. The rare tureens serve as an unmistakable advertisement for Campbell wherever they are shown.
Nonetheless, one cannot begrudge the company credit for amassing such delightful examples of Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassic decorative art. The relatively small number of tureens on display at the Athenaeum is more than offset by the intrinsic elegance of each piece and by the care with which the exhibit was arranged.
From the austere, classic lines of a Polish silver tureen from the 19th century, one might gather that stew had to have been a dignified affair.
Yet a glass case nearby houses a pair of cabbage-munching white rabbits with brown spots from Chelsea, England, in the mid-18th century. Their ears serving as handles, their tummies a repository for dessert sauce, these two porcelain figures stand in playful contrast to the Polish work.
The variety doesn't end with rabbits. Did you ever think those plastic, no-spill commuter mugs were a nifty idea? Forget it. In 18th-century Saxony, travelers in the know already carried their china soup bowls and plates in handy leather carrying cases. One such bowl, decorated with a harbor landscape, sits next to its case - not far from the hometown favorite, a fluted ladle by Paul Revere.
Because a tureen was not, after all, meant only for admiration from a distance, its decoration holds a practical as well as artistic dimension. Ms. Magee explained that a tureen's finial, the handle or ornament on its lid, often designates the contents within.
Thus a Wedgwood-type tureen with a miniature cauliflower finial does more than take advantage of a magnificent green glaze for the leaves - it also allows dinner guests to anticipate the delicacy to come. Similarly, she says, the formerly rare lemon often adorned tureens in order to whet the diner's appetite.
The royalty who used these tureens and the artists who created them must have understood what is evident at the Athenaeum: Not all art need be mysterious, and not all whimsy need be useless.
Moreover, not all soup need be pedestrian, even if one does just buy it in a can.
* The Campbell Museum collection of tureens is on display at the Boston Athenaeum through June 9. It then travels to the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, Inc., Norwalk, Conn. (June 18-Sept. 26), and the Lakeview Museum of Arts, Peoria, Ill. (early November).