Et in Arcadia Ego: Still-Life with Strawberries

by Christine Cariati

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Wicker Basket with Wild Strawberries, 1761
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Recently, while looking at Chardin’s Wicker Basket with Wild Stawberries, a beautiful, elegiac passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited crossed my mind:

At Swindon we turned off the main road and, as the sun mounted high, we were among dry-stone walls and ashlar houses. It was about eleven when Sebastian, without warning, turned the car into a car track and stopped. It was hot enough now to make us seek the shade. On a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine—as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together—and we lit fat Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.

—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Book I, Et in Arcadia Ego

It was Chardin’s strawberries, luxuriating in their rich atmosphere of air and light, glowing with ripeness and warmth from the sun, that I imagined Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder feasting on in their summer idyll—not the bloated, tasteless behemoths that pass for strawberries these days.

So, here is a visual ode to the strawberry, as brought to vivid life in a handful of favorite still-life paintings. I apologize, dear reader, that I cannot deliver a basket to your door—but, by all means, open a bottle of Château Peyraguey, and feast your eyes.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638) Still Life with Pygmy Parrot, n.d.
Water color drawing
Staatliche Museum, Berlin

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Strawberries in a Wan-Li Bowl, detail, 1704
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Eloise Harriet Stannard (1829-1915) Birds and Strawberries, c. 1852-93
Oil on canvas

Pierre-August Renoir, Strawberries, 1905
Oil on canvas
Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris

Édouard Manet, Strawberries, 1882
Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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5 Responses to “Et in Arcadia Ego: Still-Life with Strawberries”

  1. Elizabeth barlow Says:

    Such a sumptuous evocation of the fruits of the earth and of the heart!

  2. lovely ode to strawberries – the only ones missing are the divine tiny forest strawberries one can still buy in Paris markets…

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Chardin’s wild strawberries remind me of those you mention, they look so ripe and luscious. It’s amazing how something that hasn’t existed for 250 years can look so alive…

  3. Your selection of art is lovely as is the elegant passage from “Brideshead Revisited”. Jeremy Irons’ voice could woo the birds from the trees, don’t you think?

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Yes, I agree–Irons’ narration is so pitch-perfect, so evocative. In fact, between his hypnotic narration and the visuals, I was kind of stunned to realize that in that scene he only speaks a fraction of that wonderful passage—because the entire sense and meaning is conveyed in relatively few words. I always think of the dialogue in the BBC series as being pretty much the text, verbatim, but I wonder now how much else is left out that I’ve just assumed was there because the meaning is so perfectly captured by other means.

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