The Still Life Examined: Asparagus in Art

by Christine Cariati

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.”

Édouard Manet, A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
Oil on canvas
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

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.

Cornelis de Heem, Vegetables and Fruit before a Garden Balustrade, 1658
(detail)
Oil  on copper
Städel Museum, Frankfurt

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largely true, but I believe that individual artists also included objects based on aesthetic and personal criteria that superceded the established iconography.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.

A. Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus and Spray of Red-Currants, c. 1696
Paper on cardboard
Pieter C.W.M. Dreesmann Collection

Adriaen Coorte, A bundle of Asparagus, 1703
Paper on canvas
The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, Cherries and a Butterfly,
c. 1693-95
Paper on panel
Private collection, Switzerland

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.

Peter Binoit, Fruit and Vegetables, Roses in a Glass Vase, and a Squirrel, probably 1631
Oil on wood
Private collection

Isaak Soreau, Basket of Fruit and Vegetables, c. 1628
Oil on wood
Private collection

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.

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630
Oil on panel
The Art Institute of Chicago

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.”

Giovanna Garzoni, Plate of Asparagus with Carnations and a Grasshopper, undated
Gouache on vellum
Private collection, Italy

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.

Wider connections

The Magic of Things, Still-Life Painting 1500-1800, edited by Jochen Sander

The Still Lifes of Adriaen Coorte 1683-1707 by Quentin Buvelot

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6 Responses to “The Still Life Examined: Asparagus in Art”

  1. Wonderful choices of art and, who knew there were so many with asparagus themes? I’ve never seen either Manet and he’s one of my favorites. But I love the 17th C choices; they’re beautiful

  2. I’m falling behind in my blog reading. As I read this post I was thinking about the presence of asparagus in any still life I was familiar with. Not one came to mind but here you are showing that there are many. I appreciate the time you take putting together these themed posts that always work to heighten my interest in various subjects. I still have to read the garden post. I can’t believe I missed that one given my interest in gardens.

  3. Not sure if you know this, but Manet’s Asparagus will be at the de Young in San Francisco from May 22 – Sept 6 as part of Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay.

    • Fantastic Jill. Has a list of the works that will be on exhibit in the show been published (or is it available)? We cannot wait for D’Orsay by the Bay!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks, Jill. I was hoping it was included. It seemed unlikely it wouldn’t be, but very glad to know for sure.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    I was delighted to find your article on still life art, especially Coorte. Nowhere could I find very much interest in his unusual works.

    thanks for the link
    Hels
    http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/treasures-in-attic-lost-adriaen-coorte.html

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