Fashioning Food in Impressionist Painting

Wong, Alice Sau Mui 黃秀梅
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

This thesis explores the various roles of food in Impressionism by examining paintings of food so as to sort out their relationship with one another and their linkage to modern life in Paris in the 19th century. Food was related to spectacle, class reconfiguration, gender relations, consumerism and capitalism, and leisure, all of which were part of the revolution of modernity in Paris. By analyzing Impressionist images of food production, display and consumption in relation to these modern social and historical developments, the thesis explores the relationship between food and people, meaning the social dimension of food culture. In addition to standard art historical approaches, two research methods are especially important. First is to understand the general historical context of food imagery by examining 19th-century cookbooks, novels and treatises related to food, and popular visual culture including posters, menus, and prints. Second is to identify and analyze particular food motifs by studying recipes, statistics, and dictionaries of food. Five chapters deal with five aspects of food. Chapter one talks about the crystallization of food into spectacle as a result of the conspicuous consumption facilitated by the construction of Les Halles, the central food market. Chapter two examines two different kinds of food production – rural agriculture and urban artisan cuisine – as expressions of two dissimilar attitudes towards labor, linked to competing conceptions of time as continuous and discontinuous. Chapter three raises the issue of sociability, where the pleasure of eating can only be obtained through the engendering of a semi-private space linking private eating to public identity. Chapter four shows how the coalescing of food and women in Impressionism intensifies the pleasures of visually and physically consuming the female body, while paradoxically entrapping male viewers in desire. Whereas these first four chapters emphasize social aspects of food, chapter five shows how food affected the interiority of particular artists, demonstrating the embodiment of psychological traits in Impressionist still lifes of food. Overall, the thesis shows that Impressionist paintings of food actively interpreted and defined modern food culture as a continuous process of spectacularization and systemization, and that they consciously draw parallels between food consumption and visual consumption as similar processes of pleasurable consumption. By revealing that Impressionist food imagery sometimes does not comply with other Impressionist genres in interpreting modernity, the thesis opens new ways of thinking about both food culture and Impressionism.