19th Century Still Life Painting and Chromolithographs

While photography was still in its early stages of development, 19th century still life paintings saw a “radical renewal” (Malaguzzi, S. 2008, P 55), no longer just private commissions, but experimentations by French impressionist artists. The transition was ‘radical’ because the French painters of this time had the view that all aspects of daily or mundane human life deserved the same aesthetic attention, including food. The heightened level of value placed on food and its aesthetics was new, and was added to other aspects of interest from the 17th century that reappeared in the 19th century, such as the focus on light and the subject matter as indicators of class and status. Impressionist artists, like Monet and Manet, and painter-friend Fantin-Latour, endeavoured to capture the effects of light on the form and colour of the food subjects. Impressionism in still life paintings focussed on consumption and indication of class where the painter created a seemingly natural arrangement of objects despite meticulous arrangement. This radical renewal of the genre by the Impressionist movement was arguably a reaction to the newly established medium of photography. Impressionists focussed on “developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated.” (Levinson, P, 1997, p47) Rather than mirroring a scene like early still life photographs, artists aimed to subjectively depict their own visual experience. This can be seen in the work Henri Fantin-Latour, a key painter of this period, who painted ‘Still Life: Corner of a Table’ in 1873. The painting is his perception of a moment in bourgeois Parisian life, showing key indicators of class and lifestyle.

Henri Fantin Latour, Still life: Corner of a Table, 1873.

A considered effort has been taken to create a natural, random arrangement of the objects. The painting is very detailed and realistic and is reminiscent of still life paintings from the 18th century by Jean Simeon Chardin. The composition of the painting is of clear importance “The rhododendron prominently placed in the foreground joins the elements resting on the table, which are in turn silhouetted, frieze-like, against the dark background. By contrast, the white tablecloth shows off and brings visually forward to stunning effect the pink-tinged blossoms that reach up to the golden orbs of fruit in the compotier” (Rathbone, E, E. 2001, p100) As we will see, the way this informal scene was composed to suggest lifestyle, status and class, is now crucial to modern food and lifestyle magazines.

This could also been seen in Victorian England where “…the still life of gastronomic plenty seems to have enjoyed resurgent popularity.” (Garwood, N. and Voigt, R. 2001, p148). The first instance of food illustrations, published as special plates in the illustrated London News, in 1860, may have influenced contemporary images of plentiful amounts of food.

Fresh fruit chromolithograph plate issued with the illustrated London news, 1860

In the same decade, chromolithographs were featured in ‘Le Livre de cuisine’ (“The Royal Cookery Book”) written by Jules Gouffe, a well-known French chef. (Garwood, N. and Voigt, R. 2001, p167). Printed in Paris in 1867 the cookery book contains 25 chromolithograph platesprintedincolour. This is arguably the beginning of food illustrations being used in cookbooks and, significantly, appears to emerge concurrently with the ‘radical renewal’ of the French Impressionist’s interest.

Although black and white pictures began to appear in early printed cookery books, the process was slow. Professional photographers used the half-tone process for cheaper reproduction. By breaking up the images into a series of dots, it was much easier to reproduce the full tonal range of a photograph in printed matter. As photography became a popular medium, advancements in printing techniques paved the way for easier production.

Although food was appropriated as a subject in photography, still life painters in the 20th century continued painting food as the genre maintained its popularity. Developments in printing techniques paved the way for photographic printing in newspapers and magazines yet the aesthetics of still life paintings were still seen and reflected upon in commercial food photography magazines of the 20th century. Aspects of realism, painterly skill, effects of light, composition and arrangement, allegory and meaning, and indicators of lifestyle and class were all elements of modern of still life painting and as we will see, were mirrored in commercial food photography.

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