(Still) life is like an onion: the special relationship between painting and food

by | Apr 27, 2023 | Opinion

An Utrecht-based chef Ernst de Witte was visiting the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam when he noticed an incongruity between one of the paintings and its wall label. Van Gogh’s still-life painting “Red Cabbages and Onions” (1887) was actually a painting of red cabbages and several heads of garlic.

As we all know, chefs are easy going types who don’t enjoy correcting the mistakes of others.

No wait.

Chefs are bloodthirsty pedants who would sooner slit your throat than allow you to mistake parsley for chervil.

And so, De Witte reported the mistake to the museum’s administrators and later returned armed with a PowerPoint presentation.

The painting has since been retitled “Red Cabbages and Garlic”.

A chef getting himself entangled in matters of the art world is not exactly a surprise (de Witte also happens to be a visual artist) considering the amount of attention that goes in the opposite direction. Artists, especially painters, love food. Early cave paintings depicted humans hunting animals for meat and gathering honey. The connection between art and food has been there since humans first applied ochre to a cave wall.

Caravaggio, the great Italian baroque artist and all round dangerous guy, loved a bit of grub with his art. His painting, Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the Gospel of Luke: a newly resurrected Christ reveals his identity to two of his disciples who, up until that moment, don’t recognise him. In the foreground of this tableau of palpable shock and disbelief is a cooked fowl, complete with feet, several loaves of bread, and a basket of fruit. The fruit is so dazzlingly real and so precariously piled, the viewer half expects a pear to tumble out of the frame and into reality. An apple shows the first black blemishes of rot. The food’s perishability, its impermanence sits in stark contrast to the undying, immortal figure of Christ.

Also in a religious vein, Francis Bacon’s (tee hee) Figure with Meat is based on Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon’s pope is leering and gruesome, his hands are skeletal and clenched into bony fists. He is flanked by two sides of beef. The meat, like Caravaggio’s fruit, contrasts with the supposed spirituality implied by the holy office. Meat represents decadence and carnal sensuality. The painting suggests that without the spiritual, we ourselves are just meat, carcasses waiting around to become food.

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Tins gives us a modern, post-industrial depiction of food in art. Warhol doesn’t show us the food but only its packaging. We are denied even the sensual curve of the tin. Rather, we are given the flat surface of the label, repeated over and over again, a factory made image of a factory made food. This reflected a mid-century America intent on leaving behind the messy business of the organic world and transcending the body’s natural functions.

This space-age utopianism harked back to the early 20th century Futurist art movement in Italy. In Filipo Marinetti’s manifesto The Futurist Cookbook, he not only argued for the abolition of pasta, and the elevation of fine dining to the rarified planes of high art, but also that the business of everyday eating should be reduced to ‘scientific nourishment by means of pills and powders’.


Far from the cold, machine-age ascetics of Warhol and Marinetti lies the greatest of all food paintings: Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter (circa 1875-1885). A huge, messy lump of dairy is sensuously draped in cheesecloth. Two peeled, boiled eggs suggest fertility, plenty, and– maybe this is just me– testicles. Just look at it would you. So much butter. So yellow. The thick, textured paint so suggestive of its subject. The butter knife or spatula protruding from the mound a call to action: ‘eat this butter and be damned! You’ll be dead soon enough!’.

That last part might also just be me.

But it does suggest something true: that painting and food are tied together by their mutual sensuality. Painting is a messy business, a physical business, and business that is concerned with shape and form and texture. It is little wonder that painters so often alight on food as a subject. Nor that chefs might be attacted to the art gallery where they can indulge ttheir own taste for the sensaul.

And perhaps, as a special treat, a spot of aggressive pedantry.


About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

Related Posts