Of all the things I use to measure my days, food holds a very special place. Not only does it literally keep me going, it allows me to travel through time and to distant places without leaving my kitchen. It keeps me humble by reminding me of all I have to be grateful for and of everything I have yet to learn. Food nourishes, heals, pleases, and entertains. It plays a central role in most religions and in the social rituals of countless cultures. Food is a language unto itself, and while it’s true that it can have the power to divide, it also has the capacity to unite people coming from different places in meaningful ways. Sharing food is quite simply an act of sharing love and I long for the day when I can safely go back to practicing free (food) love by cooking for as many friends as I want, and patronizing restaurants bursting at the seams.
Food is a language unto itself, and while it’s true that it can have the power to divide, it also has the capacity to unite people coming from different places in meaningful ways.
For some, cooking has been an important source of comfort during confinement, an opportunity to become more self-reliant, or to tackle that recipe for sourdough that previously seemed too time-consuming or intimidating. I seriously entertained the possibility of making “biscuits to excite Venus” after a late 16th-century Italian recipe (wouldn’t you, with a title like that?). I would have done it too, if I wasn’t out of a few key ingredients like diasatirion (otherwise known as “wolf’s testicles”): a blend of orchid root, lizards—skinks to be exact—chickpeas, cinnamon, ginger, and sparrow brains. While that particular venture didn’t work out, it did get me thinking about the history of food in relation to women, not only as consumers but also as creators, especially of culinary imagery. In her iconic “Dinner Party” (1974–79), Judy Chicago relies on the notion of a shared meal to draw attention to the persistent effacement of women’s contributions across disciplines and time. I see that arresting tribute as an essential marker in a fascinating history of women artists—many lesser known today—who used food and related motifs as their primary subjects.
Before delving into that topic, I’m tempted to pen a few words about one of the guests evoked at Judy Chicago’s table: Isabelle d’Este (place no. 23 in Wing II, between Christine de Pisan and Elizabeth I). As Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella (1474–1539) excelled at politics and ran a very sophisticated court, attracting leading artists and writers, and serving as one of Europe’s great fashionistas. Isabella’s extensive correspondence provides a window into her world, in which she relied on food in different ways. The Marchioness not only demonstrated her love through gifting food and recipes, but also cemented her alliances, accrued favors, and expanded her influence. So while she sent her husband sweet treats like marzipan when he travelled as tokens of her affection, diplomatic gifts needed to be grander—like the 140 carps (then a particularly prized fish) she had delivered to the Pope in 1515. But whether Isabella was sending her relations salami, leafy cabbage, grana cheese, or Mantuan artichokes, at the heart of her offerings was always a reminder of her access to the most perfect goods, either through her strong connections or because of her ability to ensure excellent production within her own territory. Every bite of the gift received was proof of Isabella’s successful approach to managing her domain.
When she first arrived in Mantua, Isabella fired the head cook because she found him to be lacking in skill. In wealthy Italian Renaissance households, kitchens were staffed largely by men. A painting like Vincenzo Campi’s “The Kitchen” reveals some of the activities that took place in these spaces, such as butchering and pastry-making, and includes anecdotal details like the boy inflating a bladder for fun. In Campi’s romanticized vision, men are scarce and peripheral. By placing several attractive, buxom women in the center of the composition, the artist creates the suggestion that much like the delicacies they are preparing, they are consumable, served up for the visual delectation of the painting’s male viewers.
These new, food-oriented categories attracted women artists because unlike history painting, they did not require access to live models (then restricted to male artists), and the pictures tended to be smaller and so could easily be painted at home.
The trend for kitchen and market scenes, often showing an abundance of food and comely young women, originated with (male) Flemish and Dutch artists working in the early 16th century. This kind of painting, together with its relative the independent still life composition, was borne out of a desire to move away from traditional religious imagery, due partly to the rise of Protestantism, which warned against the use of pictures in worship. These new, food-oriented categories attracted women artists because unlike history painting, they did not require access to live models (then restricted to male artists), and the pictures tended to be smaller and so could easily be painted at home. Such issues mattered at a time when, with the exception of some aristocratic ladies and painters’ daughters, becoming a professional painter remained out of bounds for many women.
Among the most talented still life painters was the Flemish artist Clara Peeters (? 1589–after 1657), about whose life we know little. Peeters excelled at creating exquisitely lit table-top scenes, often incorporating luxurious foods and serving pieces. Such is the case in “Still Life with Crab, Shrimps and Lobster” (ca. 1635–1640), which presents a feast of coveted seafood on Wan-Li Chinese porcelain, along with chicken and plover eggs, butter, various breads, and cheeses (the dark one likely receiving its distinctive color from sheep feces). While on one level, the image reads as a celebration of trade, the sea’s bounty and material success—all important themes to Peeters’ bourgeois audience—the foods are mostly highly perishable, and so also act as a reminder of life’s fleetingness. That some of the items on the table extend over its edge supports this notion of precariousness. By incorporating an image of the Sacrifice of Isaac into the tablecloth, Peeters adds a further spiritual dimension to her composition, especially since she aligns it with a roll, thereby linking this Old Testament Scene of Sacrifice with the Sacrifice of Christ, whose body is symbolized by the bread. Through this arrangement, Peeters reminds her viewers of the importance of humility and of not getting too caught up in the possessions she so expertly depicts. Carefully observing Peeters’ paintings often yields remarkable details, such as her self-portrait deftly executed as a reflection on a piece of metalwork, a motif she often used, and that attests to the importance she attached to her identity as a painter.
Louise Moillon (1610–1696) also specialized in still lifes. Although hers is hardly a household name today, her work was once much admired and collected by the likes of King Charles I of England. Moillon, who possibly trained with her father and stepfather, grew up in the then Protestant neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Près in Paris. In 1685, the Edict of Nantes, which had granted Protestants greater religious freedom in France, was revoked, and Moillon and her family suffered persecution (works by her after this date have yet to be identified). As revealed in compositions like “Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus,” Moillon’s style privileges meticulousness and sobriety. Each element, from glistening cherries to plump broad beans is precisely rendered and lit, and the ensemble is organized with a clarity that appeals to our modern penchant for structure. Religious overtones are scarcer in her paintings, which are more of an unapologetic homage to the perfection of ripe nature and to economic comfort, as suggested by the prominence given to the asparagus, a delicate treat reserved for the well-to-do. Moillon sometimes contextualized her produce in market scenes, creating compositions of a stillness quite contrary to the animation in Campi’s “Kitchen.” Her women vendors and shoppers are deliberate in their gestures and rather stiff in their postures, inviting the question of what Moillon’s figural style might have been had she had access to better training and been a member of the Académie Royale like her brother Isaac.
Among other women artists who focused on still lifes prior to the 19th century, one may cite Fede Galizia, Giovanna Garzoni, Josefa de Óbidos, and Anne Vallayer-Coster. Just like so many of the Instagram photos of culinary creations in our feeds these days, the compositions produced by these women were carefully staged, often combining elements in a purely artificial way, such as fruits and vegetables that mature at different times of the year. It’s in their methods of compositional construction as much as in their handling of the brush that these painters elaborated their artistic personalities. Many people I know find it hard to connect with still lifes, finding them “old,” “dusty” and “boring.” Part of that has to do with the traditional categorization of still life as the most “minor” of art forms, a prejudice that has stuck, just as the cult of the body as the essential subject for painting holds strong. And yet, there is much pleasure to be had—and knowledge to be gained—by taking a closer look at the work of women still life painters, and how this often deceptively straightforward genre became a forum of expression for artists on the fringes. I’ll certainly eat to that.