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Feast & Fast

The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800

A rainbow palette revealed: Van Son’s Still life with lobster

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This painting was cleaned for Feast & Fast by Molly Hughes-Hallett, under the supervision of Adele Wright, at the University of Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute. Prior to conservation treatment, the still life had a highly yellowed varnish, which completely obscured the sense of light, depth, and space within the painting. Removal of the varnish has revealed the incredibly vibrant rainbow palette: the bright yellow lemons; the rich orange of the cut-open melon, the peaches and the oranges; the pillar-box red cooked lobster and the deeper red cherries; the purples of the plums and grapes; and the rich diversity of greens from the darker vine-leaves, citrus fruit and plum leaves, to the lighter coloured chestnut husks, grapes, and celery – all set against the dazzling white tablecloth and the cavernous black background. Cleaning has equally re-animated the reflections on the silverware as well as on the ripe cherries and the lobster’s carapace, and the glistening drops of fruit juice on the table cloth. It has also revealed the highly textured skin of the citrus fruits, to give them an enhanced sense of tactility. 

Figure 1: Joris van Son (1623–67), Still life with a lobster, Antwerp, Belgium, 1660. Oil on canvas. 64.1 x 89.2 cm. C.B. Marlay Bequest, 1912 (M.76). © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. This shows a comparison of the two images before and after together.

While eating seasonally today is often politically or ethically motivated, most diners in 17th-century Europe were constrained by the rhythms of the growing and harvesting seasons. Joris van Son’s vibrant painting is naturalistic in style yet highly unnatural in content, combining foodstuffs that could never actually have been eaten at the same time. It portrays with breath-taking realism summer fruit such as speckled plums, translucent redcurrants, and a gaping melon, together with autumnal harvest produce such as grapes and chestnuts. Similarly, while the lobster – symbol of luxury – was at its best from mid-March to mid-July, the shrimps were at their largest and most succulent only in the autumn. Van Son’s still life also combines local with global: all the fruit was grown locally, except for the citrus fruits, which would probably have been imported from the Mediterranean. Like the lobster, which would have been fished from the coastal waters of the North Sea, oranges and lemons were still a luxury for most northern Europeans.

While most of the food is in perfect condition, the leaves of the cherries have some blight and damage, which may indicate that this luxurious food fantasy was originally intended to be read as a moralising vanitas: a warning against overindulgence and a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. However, the celery with its unnaturally curling leaves had no symbolic meaning at all. It appears to have been included purely to show off the artist’s virtuoso skill, echoing the curling antennae of the lobster directly below. The fact that van Son has placed his signature and date on a sculpted shield hints at the highly constructed and contrived nature of the image, despite its apparent naturalism. It highlights his skill in painterly illusionism – portraying the edible delights of the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas so convincingly that the viewer cannot help but salivate and desire to devour the food with more than just the eyes.

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