The Still Life Examined: Asparagus in Art
Édouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
In honor of the arrival of spring, I thought I’d continue my exploration of the art of the still life by concentrating on images which depict that quintessential spring vegetable, asparagus. The subtle whites, mauves, purples and greens of asparagus are beautifully portrayed in this famous image (above)—Édouard Manet’s single white asparagus, which was a gift from Manet to Charles Ephrussi. Manet had just sold A Bunch of Asparagus (below) to Ephrussi for 800 francs. When Ephrussi sent him 1000 francs instead, Manet painted this single white spear and sent it to Ephrussi with the note: “There was one missing from your bunch.”
Through the use of subtle color, volume, atmosphere and light, a beautifully rendered still life takes something that no longer exists—and shows it to us as a palpable, living thing. The Golden Age of still life painting was 1500-1800 and flourished in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Still-life painting was not merely an aesthetic exercise, although technique and composition was extremely important. It was also meant to provide a record of familiar objects—china, flowers, vegetables, fruits, dead birds, game and fish, et al—and to provide reference points for the flow of the seasons, the passing of time and mortality (tempus omnia terminat—time brings an end to all things.) Still life painting also reflected the wealth and social standing of the patrons—and often the sources of that wealth and position were depicted in the work: exotic spices, Venetian glass, porcelain from China.
Art historians like to ascribe an iron-clad iconography to still life painting, where every element is depicted for a specific reason, each with absolute symbolic meaning. This may be largely true, but I believe that individual artists also included objects based on aesthetic and personal criteria that superceded the established iconography.
Asparagus has been around a long time. The oldest known recipe for cooking asparagus appeared in Apicius’ De re coquinaria, Book III, in the third century. Since the 17th century, it has been highly valued for its culinary and medicinal properties.
The only painter I have come across, prior to Manet, who made asparagus a primary subject in his work, is Adriaen Coorte (active c. 1683-1707.) This 17th-century Dutch master, whose work was largely unknown until the 1950s, painted many pictures where asparagus is a very important—or sole—element in the composition. This was unusual among his peers, not least because asparagus was a luxury item in the 17th century.
Many 17th-century European artists painted asparagus in combination with other still life elements. The painting below is one of almost two identical compositions by German painter Peter Binoit (1590/93-1632/39)—only in this version, he added a squirrel.
Isaak Soreau, Basket of Fruit and Vegetables, c. 1628
Oil on wood
François Habert, Kitchen Bench with Carp, c. 1645-1651
Oil on canvas
Hessiches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt
French artist Louise Moillon (1610-1696) had a long and successful career as a painter of Naturalist still life. She was noted for her sensitive rendering of plants and her exceptional use of chiaruscuro. Moillon was raised in a family of painters and her father also owned a prominent art gallery on the Left Bank.
Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670), known as the miniatura (miniaturist) was an accomplished still life painter who had a long and successful career. Her paintings, mostly gouache or tempera on vellum, were collected by the Medicis and other aristocratic families and were highly prized and valued. This painting, unusual with it’s white background, has an extremely light and contemporary feel. A contemporary art historian, Emanuele Tesauro, wrote that Garzoni had the ability “to penetrate the most minute and subtle causes underlying every subject.”
I will close my homage to the asparagus with this amusing 18th century etching which I found on Bibliodyssey. Elaborate wigs were all the rage at the time and many satirical artists found it irresistible to parody them. Among the vegetables and herbs adorning this creation, note the large bunch of asparagus at the top.
The Magic of Things, Still-Life Painting 1500-1800, edited by Jochen Sander
The Still Lifes of Adriaen Coorte 1683-1707 by Quentin Buvelot