Food and the Romance of Painting


Music – “The Painter’s Garden” from Sketches of Fancy by Stefan Petzén. Released: 1993

In my ever expanding collection of cookbooks, I am always happy to find cookbooks related to ‘The Arts’. A number of these cookbooks are sold to benefit museums and art galleries, symphonies and the like, but some are full of recipes inspired by the art in the museums and galleries. Some are written by poets, accompanied by recipes inspired by their poetry.

"The Dutch Table - Painters & Food", by Gillian Riley, 1994

“The Dutch Table – Painters & Food”, by Gillian Riley, 1994

One, “The Dutch Table – Painters and Food”, by Gillian Riley, published in 1994, concentrates on paintings by the Dutch Masters of the 17th Century “Golden Age”. Many of these still life paintings reflect the day-to-day life of the Dutch. As the author points out, “Their paintings glow with enticing food and drink – cornucopias of fruit and vegetables tumble over market stalls and scrubbed kitchen tables: fresh meat, fowl, and fish are prepared for the stewpot and spit; cheeses are piled in golden profusion; and tasty snacks of good bread, herring, and beer are laid out – ever fresh, ever tempting”.

Ms. Riley researched cookbooks from the time period in which many of the Dutch masters painted and these, together with the photographs of the paintings, link us to the foods and recipes of the 17th century Netherlands.

"Kitchen Scene", by Joachim Beuckelaer (1533 - 1573)

“Kitchen Scene”, by Joachim Beuckelaer (1533 – 1573)

Take, for example, the elaborate “Kitchen Scene”, painted by Joachim Beuckelaer, in The Hague. The painting is rich with fruits, vegetables, fowl and meat. From cookbooks of the same time period, the author selected “Stewed Cabbage”:

1 head of cabbage
2 cups strong homemade stock
garlic to taste
salt, freshly ground nutmeg, mace and black peppercorns
butter to taste
the yolks of 2 hard-boiled eggs, crumbled

Cut the cabbage into quarters and slice away the stem. Chop coarsely and put in a pan. Cover with a little water and bring to the boil. Drain. Return to the pan, add the stock and seasonings, and cook until tender. Then enrich with as much butter as you dare, and sprinkle the egg yolks over it as a decorative garnish. Adjust the amount of stock to give a soupy  or dry dish according to taste.

"A Woman Peeling Apples", by Pieter de Hooch (1629 - 1684)

“A Woman Peeling Apples”, by Pieter de Hooch (1629 – 1684)

Also in “The Dutch Table” is a lovely painting, “A Woman Peeling Apples”, by Pieter de Hooch (1629 – 1684). Recipes from the same time period, selected by the author include “Apple Custard Crumble” and “Apple Pie”. In the painting, a small girl stands beside the woman, presumably her mother, assisting in the chore. Except for the dress of the period, it could be Colonial America.

Another book, inspired by painters, is “The Artist’s Table”, compiled and edited by Carol Eron and published in 1994. The book is “A Cookbook by Master Chefs Inspired by Paintings in the National Gallery of Art”, and features recipes from a dazzling array of chefs including Julia Child, Joel Robuchon, Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Paula Wolfert and others. Twelve works of art were selected as the centerpiece of menus and the chefs drew their inspirations from them.

"Table Set in a Garden", by Pierre Bonnard (c. 1908)

“Table Set in a Garden”, by Pierre Bonnard (c. 1908)

Jeremiah Tower was inspired by “Table Set in a Garden”, by Pierre Bonnard, painted around 1908. His menu reflects what he saw and felt, when looking at the painting:

Platter of Aged Country Sausage, Marinated Olives and Rosemary Bread Sticks
Grand Shellfish Platter with Saffron Mayonnaise
Sea Bass Grilled over Vine Cuttings with Sea Bass Roe Sauce
French and California fresh and aged goat cheeses
Pear, Apple, and Quince Tarte Tatin with Jamaican-Pepper Cream

"The Feast of the Gods", by Giovanni Bellini and Titian (1514/1529)

“The Feast of the Gods”, by Giovanni Bellini and Titian (1514/1529)

Italian Chef, Lorenza De’ Medici was inspired by “The Feast of the Gods”, by Giovanni Bellini and Titian (1514/1529). His menu:

Tuna Mousse
Wild Boar in Sweet-and Sour Chocolate Sauce
Glazed Baby Onions with Raisins
Spiced Cannoli

In 1994, Alexandra Leaf published “The Impressionists’ Table”. The menus are drawn from sources, which date to the French Impressionist era, taken from cookbooks of the same time period, during the 19th century. The menus are inspired not only by the time period, but the artists themselves.

"The Impressionists' Table", by Alexandra Leaf, 1994

“The Impressionists’ Table”, by Alexandra Leaf, 1994

"M. Boileau at the Cafe", by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888

“M. Boileau at the Cafe”, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888

For example, the author notes that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a passion for dining and entertaining and had what she calls an “off-beat sense of humor”. The painting by Toulouse-Lautrec, “M. Boileau at the Café”, was painted in 1888 and Ms. Leaf suggests the following menu, inspired by the painting:

Spinach and Chickpeas
Leeks in Red Wine
Green “Chicken”
Lobster American Style
Salad of Dandelion Greens
Assorted Cheeses: Port Salut, Camembert, Chèvre
The Convent Serpent

Wine selections (by Jacques Pépin) include Condrieu and Tavel. Coffee and Liqueurs to follow.

The Convent Serpent“, according to the author, is “…a wacky recipe…most revealing of Toulouse-Lautrec’s whimsical and imaginative character”. Made with butter, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla, flour, raisins and almonds, the thick dough is rolled into the shape of a serpent, with raisins as eyes and the almonds as scales along the reptile’s back. The cook is admonished to “Allow to cool before startling your guests”. What fun! The recipe was adapted from the book, “L’art de la Cuisine”, written by Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyani in 1966.

These cookbooks, with recipes and menus inspired by great artists, are not only entertaining but informative and offer us a glimpse of history. They reveal not only what people were eating at the time, but what their entertainments were, the politics of the period, and so much more.

Food has always been a central focus in any period in history and it is enlightening to trace back what we eat and why. The next time I visit an art gallery and find paintings of food, I intend to have a second look to see if I might be inspired to imagine what the people of the time, seeing the paintings of their contemporaries, might have put on their dinner tables.

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
This entry was posted in Cookbooks, Cooking, Cooking and Social History, Eating, Food Trends, Recipes, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s