FORT WORTH, TEXAS — As one of humanity’s fundamental needs, food is a constant across cultures and centuries. More than just daily sustenance, food is also a social lubricant, a focal point for celebrations, a bearer of cultural meaning and a sensual delight. Its production stirs debate, and its sale and distribution have spawned complex networks of industry and advertising.
Food and its role in society have fascinated American artists from the beginning of the republic. America’s painters have used still life, genre scenes and portraiture to depict food, drink and places for preparation and consumption. Some artists have painted foods to convey moral, political or social messages.
Paintings of food reflect how American modes of nourishment have evolved dramatically since the nation’s founding. At the outset, before markets were established, people consumed what they produced themselves. As cities developed, markets emerged to facilitate the purchase of foodstuffs, which eventually included edibles from around the nation as well as exotic produce imported from the Caribbean and elsewhere.
By the second half of the Nineteenth Century, technological innovations — from railroads and icehouses to canning and preserving — stimulated a culture of abundance that transformed American society. Fine dining restaurants, unheard of before the Civil War, flourished in the Gilded Age, while massive immigration encouraged proliferation of ethnic cuisines.
In the 1930s, the economic pressures of the Great Depression closed restaurants and reduced the nation’s preference for fine dining. Along with the emergence of fast-food eateries, domestic cooks increasingly relied on time-saving, processed goods like canned soups, frozen vegetables and cake mixes — all found in supermarkets.
From the refined still-lifes of Raphaelle Peale to Wayne Thiebaud’s enticing line-ups of sweets, “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture and Cuisine,” on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art through May 18, showcases depictions of food throughout America’s history. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it has already been seen, and curated by Judith A. Barter, the exhibition comprises 75 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. Organized thematically and chronologically, the show documents how major epicurean changes found parallels in American art.
The opening display is of Thanksgiving, a holiday that most closely unites food, family and prosperity with US history and culture. Although associated with Pilgrims in the earliest days of the New England colonies, Thanksgiving was not declared a national holiday until 1864. Early depictions often used the theme to point out differences between how the rich and poor experienced the holiday, while others, like George Henry Durrie, created genre scenes of families reuniting for feasts and Harper’s Weekly featured commotions around the proverbial groaning board.
In the 1930s, Doris Lee painted “Thanksgiving,” a delightful view of a large farm family in their chaotic kitchen, replete with screaming children and rambunctious cats and dogs, preparing the big meal. Other artists have focused on the star of the day, the turkey. The most famous is Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Freedom from Want,” showing an all-American family about to devour the succulent turkey the matriarch is delivering to the table. Characteristic works by Roy Lichtenstein and Alice Neel underscore the central role of the turkey in the annual feast. Thanksgiving is a “festival mainly celebrated in the home,” observes Barter, “and it is the most important American food day of the year.”
The section titled “Horticulture in the Early Republic” focuses on how American pride in homegrown fruits and vegetables was chronicled in brilliant still life paintings. The nation’s first still life artist, Raphaelle Peale, of the distinguished artistic Peale family, in the early Nineteenth Century created delicate compositions of fruits, vegetables and nuts, as did his accomplished uncle, James Peale.
“World Markets” showcases works by Charles Bird King and Raphaelle Peale that depict imported delicacies (especially fruits from warm-weather climes) and fortified alcohols (like Madeira) from overseas on the tables of the wealthy in the early republic.
Early on, American painters took up the subject of “Parties, Picnics and Feasts,” notably genre scenes filled with merriment and humor. John Lewis Krimmel (“Parade of the Victuallers,” 1821) and Francis Edmonds (“The Epicure,” 1838) drew on genre traditions of British and Dutch painters. They depicted a procession of carts loaded with meat in Philadelphia and a portly gourmand surrounded by meat and Madeira wine in a tavern, respectively.
Oysters, a staple of post-Civil War-era menus and featured in establishments specializing in that delicacy, were celebrated in Richard Woodville’s “Politics in an Oyster House,” spread out in a glittering array in Andrew John Henry Way’s “Oysters in Half Shell,” and in plates made in France and decorated with oyster motifs, ordered by First Lady Lucy Hayes for the White House.
The next section, devoted to “Antebellum Abundance and the Dining Room,” focuses on images of dining rooms and the hard work of food preparation in kitchens.
“Americans have always loved to drink — and have always been conflicted about the habit,” observes Barter, introducing the section on “Temperate Drinking.” Fear of health risks associated with drinking impure water and rituals of conviviality encouraged drinking alcohol, but many opposed it, leading to the temperance movement. On the other hand, Barter points out, “Wine was thought to promote health, and it was widely viewed as a necessary pleasure.”
The earliest painting on the subject, John Greenwood’s lively “Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam,” 1752–58, shows drunken New England colonial officers enjoying rum punch served to them by slaves. Two standouts are marvelously precise oils by John Francis and Severin Roesen that feature wine glasses amid tabletop mounds of fruit.
The highlight of this section is William Glackens’s evocative “At Mouquin’s,” a turn-of-the-century depiction of a mustachioed New York man-about-town about to down his drink while seated at a table with the stylishly dressed, but visibly bored Madam Mouquin, who has yet to sample her Manhattan. By contrast, African American artist Archibald Motley’s “Nightlife,” 1943, throbs with action as couples crowd the dance floor in a garishly lit nightclub with a well-stocked bar.
“Trompe l’Oeil Painting and Politics” stars paintings by fool-the-eye master William Michael Harnett, one depicting a rabbit, “Trophy of the Hunt,” and two of plucked chickens hanging from a wall, notably “Sunday Dinner,” showing a mainstay of the American diet.
The most compelling trompe l’oeil painting is De Scott Evans’s “The Irish Question,” 1880s, in which two enormous potatoes hang from a wall with a sign reading “The Irish Question,” a reference both to potato famines in the Emerald Isle and the waves of Irish emigration to America toward the end of the Nineteenth Century.
“Dining Out at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” explores the growth of fine-dining establishments, with some offering 15-course dinners. This period also saw the rise of ethnic cuisines, particularly Italian food, which accompanied massive immigration.
A standout here is John Singer Sargent’s broadly brushed “My Dining Room,” an informal depiction of the artist’s Paris table in disarray after a meal. Bostonian Edmund Tarbell’s genteel “Breakfast Room” offers a glimpse of a sun-filled room in which a man and a woman sit at a table for their morning repast. Another appealing work, William J. McCloskey’s “Wrapped Oranges,” is one of a series of carefully balanced still lifes in which he rendered the fruit’s color and form with great precision.
Also noteworthy are crystal-clear still lifes of green plums and other items by the underappreciated Joseph Decker, three astutely composed trompe l’oeil works involving food by John Frederick Peto and several of William Merritt Chase’s freely brushed, glistening, Old Master-like fish still lifes that “became turn-of-the-century America’s ideal paintings,” says Norton Museum of Art curator Ellen E. Roberts.
The section on “Modernity and Cocktail Culture” examines the 1910s–1930s, an era marked by a flourishing cocktail culture, and its governmental antithesis, Prohibition — and the onset of avant-garde art in America.
The highlight here is a 1920s painting by Gerald Murphy, “Cocktail,” a flat perspective of a table crowded with a cocktail glass and shaker, corkscrew, cut lime and an open box of Cuban cigars — reflecting the affluent artist’s festive life as an expatriate in France and the cocktail culture he brought with him.
Max Weber, a leader of the avant-garde, created Cubistic works like “Still Life,” 1911, focusing on a diverse assortment of fruits, vegetables and household implements. Another Modernist, Marsden Hartley, is represented by works ranging from fruit still lifes to portraits of fish and lobsters to “Fishermen’s Last Supper,” a deliberately naïve depiction of a Nova Scotia family that had just lost two members to drowning.
In Peter Blume’s “Vegetable Dinner,” a cigarette-smoking woman watches another woman, cropped out except for her hands that are peeling potatoes on a table laden with crisply delineated carrots and squash.
Enduringly unforgettable is Edward Hopper’s bleak, iconic “Nighthawks,” in which solitary patrons nurse coffee and their thoughts under the harsh fluorescent lights of an all-night diner. As Art Institute curator Sarah Kelly Oehler notes, “With keen observation, Hopper detailed the occasionally strained nature of urban dining, as consumers share a space without any sense of togetherness.”
The concluding section covering “Pop Art: Mass Consumption and the Production of Pop Art” begins with the 1960s, when Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann explored food motifs in the context of mass consumption and convenience that came to dominate American culture. They tapped in to the flood of consumer advertising that followed World War II, appropriating food imagery for their own work.
On view is one of Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup cans, a subject that grew out of the artist’s daily ritual of a bowl of soup and a sandwich for lunch, and his fascination with the phenomenon of mass consumerism.
Wesselmann, says Oehler, was “likewise attracted to brand-name imagery, but he used it to honor, rethink and modernize still life traditions,” as exemplified by “Still Life #4.” This color-filled display of food and two bottles of Ballantine Ale on a dazzling red-checked tablecloth was augmented with collaged imagery and fabric pieces.
Oldenburg’s soft sculptures of a fried egg and of green beans “merged verisimilitude with humor to announce the overwhelming significance of processed comestibles and fast food in American culture,” posits Oehler.
For many, the highlight of the exhibition will be Wayne Thiebaud’s colorful, precisely composed and painted “Sandwiches and Desserts.” Witty and lavishly painted, the row after row of mouth-watering edibles — decorated cakes; single servings of pudding; slices of cherry, chocolate cream, lemon chiffon and pumpkin pie — celebrate the great variety of mass-produced sweets and treats available to American consumers.
This eye-appealing exhibition, weaving together the history of food and consumption in America, is at once aesthetically satisfying and informative, a treat for foodies and everyone who recognizes the importance of food to our daily existences.
The 248-page, lavishly illustrated catalog includes insightful essays by Barter, Annelise K. Madsen, Oehler and Roberts and is published by the Art Institute, distributed by Yale University Press, and sells for $50, hardcover.
Amon Carter Museum is at 3501 Camp Bowie Boulevard. For information, 817-738-1933 or www.cartermuseum.org.