PASADENA, Calif.— The Norton Simon Museum presents All Consuming: Art and the Essence of Food, an exhibition that explores how artists responded to and shaped food cultures in Europe from 1500 to 1900. It will open on April 14 and continue through August 14.
Food and drink appear nearly everywhere in the history of European art, in depictions of luscious fruits and vegetables, sumptuous feasts and bustling markets. Such images not only offer aesthetic appeal of comestibles but also reveal actions and dynamics — indulging, abstaining, buying, selling, making, growing, craving and sharing — that give food profound social meaning. The objects on view, some 60 paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures from the Norton Simon’s collections, examine a range of relationships with eating and drinking, both positive and negative, organized thematically into sections titled Hunger, Excess, and Sustenance.
Hunger, an invisible sensation, presents a challenge for artists. It can be represented though physically gaunt figures like those in Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War series, or implied through relationships of asking and giving, as in Rembrandt’s tender print of a rural migrant family at the door of a wealthy city dweller. Several of the works in this section were created during moments of food insecurity witnessed by the artists themselves, who employed confrontational or sympathetic visual strategies to convey these experiences. Hunger is shown with different faces, as something to be feared, remedied or even admired, in the case of weathered hermit monks who suppress bodily needs to pursue spiritual goals.
Excess explores depictions of morally questionable consumption, which were shaped by historically specific attitudes about gender, class and race. For instance, the satirist William Hogarth’s widely circulated print Gin Lane, published the same year that Britain’s restrictive Gin Act was enacted, depicts the effects of the perceived vice associated with London’s poorer classes. Reformers were particularly dogmatic about perceived failures of motherhood, centrally illustrated in Hogarth’s print by a gin-drunk woman with bared breasts, who reaches clumsily into her snuffbox while her child tumbles from her arms. Indulgent and potentially addictive goods such as tobacco, coffee and chocolate, often imported from European colonies, inspired sexualized depictions of eating and drinking inflected with racial stereotypes. In Achille Deveria’s Odalisque, a woman in an exoticized Eastern costume reclines on a divan. A tray of coffee sits to her right, and she exhales a puff of smoke from her cigarette, her body displayed for the viewer’s visual consumption.
In Sustenance, images of food emphasize comfort and plenty, connected, particularly in northern Europe, to land, labor and commerce. Seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings, while almost scientific in their naturalism, offer fantastical images of abundance. In Frans Snyders’s spectacular depiction of a stocked larder, the luminously painted citrus, berries and gourds would have grown in different seasons and regions, yet they appear together in heaping mounds. Snyders painted these oversized scenes for elite urban patrons who idealized agrarian living but primarily purchased produce in city markets. In 19th-century France, increased political interest in rural labor led artists such as Camille Pissarro to focus on those who cultivated and sold food. The Poultry Market at Pontoise positions the viewer as a shopper, enveloped by the crowd. Pissarro, a critic of capitalism and mass production, celebrates the social interactions of the marketplace. Only a basket of eggs and a few ducks in the corners indicate the vendors’ specialties.
The third and final gallery brings the exhibition’s broader themes closer to home through Edward Weston’s and Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s photographs of California and Mexico in the 1930s. Weston’s sweeping views of ranches and vineyards offer a picturesque vision of food production in California, whereas Alvarez Bravo’s photographs of restaurants and drinking fountains capture casual, day-to-day encounters with food and drink. These works will be accompanied by a response space that invites viewers to contemplate art’s continued role in shaping our relationship with food, not just as a necessity of survival but as an essential for cultural life.