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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tablescape Painting

Dinner Table, 1896-97, Henri Matisse
One of the most popular items I've ever posted here was a discourse on food art. A close second was a similar piece on photographing food. I've also written on the art of Nouvelle Cuisine (food presentation). Moreover, adding to my credentials in knowing my way around the kitchen, I fix breakfast for my wife and myself every morning (when she has time to eat it). My specialties include omelets and breakfast burritos. Although I've painted food more than a few times and I'm extremely fond of it, until recently I hadn't realized that there was an entire (though relatively obscure) area of painting content known as the "tablescape." (My spellchecker thinks that should be two words.) Such iconic artists as Pierre Bonnard and Edvard Munch (below) sometimes painted them. Henri Matisse, whose Dinner Table (above) first caught my eye, probably painted more tablescapes than either of the other two put together.
At the Dinner Table, 1925, Edvard Munch,
(sometimes titled The Wedding of the Bohemian).
The term "tablescape" is, of course, derived loosely from the term "landscape," meaning it tends to be an eyelevel depiction of the contents of a receding surface. All too often it is confused with, or lumped into, the overall area of still-life painting. Technically, I suppose that's reasonable in that both are a careful arrangement of painted objects. However, in the case of the tablescape, it refers only to those objects involved with, and arranged for, dining (sometimes with more diners than objects). Whether peopled with diners or merely prepared for them, tablescapes constitute some of the largest, most elaborate still-lifes ever rendered to canvas.
Heavenly tablescapes--let us to which fork to use.
I suppose no earthly hostess could hope to match the timeless elegance of a heavenly banquet (above), but that has not prevented them from trying, or prevented artists from trying to capture such extravagance on canvas, as see in the lavish setting by Jules Alexandre Grun in his 1913 The End of Dinner (below). Those pre-income-tax millionaires (and their wives and servants) really knew how to spread a table!
The End of Dinner, 1913, Jules Alexandre Grun. I wonder if the
artist was a member of the dinner party or just an observer.
Of course, the European influenced Americans weren't the first (or last) to go "whole hog" (pun intended) when it came to spreading a gold-plated feast. Going back to Roman times (and perhaps even to the Hellenic Greeks) the banquet, sometimes lasting days on end, was the gold standard of decadent entertainment. The seating arrangements (Romans reclined to eat) and the foods were quite different--meats, fish, cheeses, produce, olive oil, and spices were menu staples. The well-to-do people ate wheat bread while the poorer folks ate bread made from barley. More exotic Roman cuisine including blood puddings, sausages, cured ham and bacon. The milk of goats or sheep was thought superior to that of cows. Likewise, butter was seen as an undesirable Gallic foodstuff. Sweet foods such as pastries typically used honey and wine syrup as a sweetener. A variety of dried fruits (figs, dates, and plums) as well as fresh berries were also served. Consuming exotic birds is largely the stuff of myths.
Roman banquets were common. Their legendary descent into orgies was not.
During the late 19th-century, dining al fresco (outside) became quite popular, especially in the case of afternoon teas. Several of the Impressionist artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Monet, Renoir, and Degas featured tables placed in garden settings with sometimes rather formal tablescapes, though the tea and croissant crowd were often depicted as being quite informal in their romanticized afternoon repasts among the blossoms, buds, and bugs.
Tea was considered upper class. Café (coffee) was seen as a
street drink containing the dangerously addictive stimulant, caffeine.

Although it has long been a staple in England, regardless of class distinctions, except for the very most upper-classes, afternoon tea never caught on in America. (We much preferred "happy hour.") Americans ate hearty meals three times a day to such a degree that "dinner" and "supper," having two distinctly different meanings (and times of the day) in Europe, came to be almost synonymous in the United States. In more recent years, noontime diners have adopted the term "lunch," allowing "dinner" to return to its traditional place in the evening with "supper" relegated to the lower classes. Regardless of what the meal was called, Americans have taken no backseat to anyone when it came to "setting the table." Although gold eating utensils are uncommon even for the upper classes, "silverware" (which was often nickel-plated stainless steel) became the classic medium of good taste in putting out an attractive, even opulent, tablescape. Strangely, we have become so accustomed to the term silverware we often call our knives, forks, and spoon by that name, even when they're made of plastic (which is sometimes made to look silvery).
A British tablescape.

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