Food for thought – and canvas

Still lifes by Impressionists defied tradition

When one thinks of Impressionist still-life paintings, images of evenly arranged fruit might spring to mind, all rounded and rosy and sitting on a China plate or a white tablecloth.

But a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrates that this genre extends beyond standard tabletop settings of apples and oranges or vases filled with flowers.

In keeping with their tendency to reject conventions of the past, the French Impressionists whose works are featured in "Impressionist Still Life," on view through June 9, defied the tradition of using perfectly staged displays in their still-life paintings.

Instead, they painted fruits in market settings. They captured a tantalizing range of foods, such as salmon, onions, and fowl, more naturally – as they were being prepared or after they had been half eaten.

These artists working in France in the late 1800s also painted in their still lifes a smorgasbord of other, non-perishable items – and in some cases, faces and figures – that caught their eye or imagination. They included such domestic objects as shoes, hats, and fans, as well as other artists' works of art. Some, such as Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, incorporated portraiture with still lifes.

In all, the show includes 90 works by such celebrated landscape painters as Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissarro; figure painters such as Cassatt, Degas, and Berthe Morisot; and borrowers of the Impressionist style, such as Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

At the time, these artists were considered radical for their interest in capturing on canvas the light and movement of a fleeting moment, and for conveying a sense of immediacy with visible brushstrokes.

Indeed, the French Impressionists pioneered taking still-life painting out of the home or studio and into such public places as restaurants or markets.

In these locales, where food is the focus, they would paint a display of game birds or summer fruits with the same passion and precision one might expect of a culinary expert such as Julia Child or Jacques Pépin.

In fact, that formidable twosome, forever linked in the public eye since their hit public-television series, lend much flavor to the exhibition's audio guide.

(This optional device is, in this case, worth every cent of the $5 fee. Together with comments by Mrs. Child and Mr. Pépin, gardening experts and museum curators shed much light on the works. And various musical selections lend the viewing experience atmosphere and richness.)

Of Edouard Manet's glorious rendering of white asparagus, Child remarks, "The asparagus of Argenteuil is very famous. And the asparagus has a slightly violet color at the tip ... that's the most prized of the asparagus."

To which Pépin adds: "Those would have been a dish fit for a royal guest, because asparagus were expensive, and the fatter the asparagus, the more expensive, and those are thick, fat asparagus."

Child enlightens those viewing Frederic Bazille's "The Heron" about the French habit of hunting.

"Everyone in France hunts," she says, explaining that the hanging of wild game at markets, a technique that not only sells chickens but also tenderizes them, is "one of the great sights of the season."

And Gustave Caillebotte's "Display of Chickens and Game Birds" earns high marks from chef Pépin.

"You can see by the color of the skin of the chicken, by the attention to detail in the bird ... that the painter is quite knowledgeable about cooking," he says.

Clearly, Caillebotte is not the only one. Paintings like Manet's "The Salmon," Frederic Bazille's "Still Life with Fish," Cézanne's "Still Life with Bread and Eggs," Paul Gaugin's "The Ham," and Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Onions," demonstrate, if not a knowledge of cooking, at least a keen interest in it.

Living and working in France all those years, only a robot could keep from becoming a foodie.

The gastronomic interest of Monet, for one, has been much chronicled in books such as "The Taste of Giverny" and "Monet's Table."

His home in Giverny is almost more of a mecca for peeking in the kitchen – with its sunny yellow walls, copper pots, blue-and-white tiles, and exquisitely set table – than for walking in the legendary gardens.

The works of other artists of that time, including Renoir and Van Gogh, are also featured in cookbooks, as well as fine art books.

After touring "Impressionist Still Life," even a noncook might want to don an apron. Or at least head for the nearest plate of salmon and asparagus.

Fortunately, that's not far.

Just across from the exhibit is the museum's elegant restaurant, where a sumptuous buffet inspired by the show and including everything from brie and baguettes to roasted game hen and petits fours will not only satiate but also delight the hungry museumgoer.

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