All About Eats: Art and the American Imagination in Chicago

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2013 | Fig. 7. Melons and Morning Glories by Peale, 1813. Inscribed "Raphaelle Peale Painted/Philadelphia Septr. 3d. 1813" at lower right. Oil on canvas, 20 ¾ by 25 ¾ inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Paul Mellon.

Not so long ago you could learn how to cook an opossum by consulting The Joy of Cooking. If you can stomach it, you may still watch an all too vivid dem­onstration on YouTube or read a historical account in Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, which advises feeding the trapped animal, a traditional southern delicacy, milk and cereal for ten days before blanching, skinning, roasting, and serving it with turnip greens. This is by far the least appetizing bit of information contained in the sprawling catalogue to the delectable, even ravishing, exhibition of the same name at the Art Institute of Chicago, which explores Americans' engagement with food and drink. The omnibus display of approximately 120 examples of fine, decorative, and graphic arts com­municates a not so simple fact: we are what we say we eat.

The show, billed as a look at American life from the colonial kitchen to Costco, is on view in Chicago through January 27, 2014. The museum drew exuberant crowds and critical acclaim with the recent exhibition Impression­ism, Fashion, and Modernity, which similarly explored art through the wider, more accessible lens of culture. Judith A. Barter marshaled the team that organized Art and Appetite, which, following its close in Chicago, travels to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. The Art Institute's Field-McCormick Chair and Curator of American Art, Barter had been thinking about such an undertaking for years. Redressing past oversights in its collections, the museum busily acquired no­table examples of American still-life and trompe-l'oeil painting. Furthermore, there had been few compre­hensive examinations of the subject since William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke published American Still-Life Painting in 1971.

It interested Barter, who loves to cook, that these genres tend to incorporate food, drink, and their accoutrements. She began her inquiry into Amer­ican cuisine at Harvard's Schlesinger Library, whose estimable holdings on culinary history and etiquette include, among others, the papers of Julia Child.

Drawing from the collections of major museums and more modest historical societies, she assembled works that sample the complex stew of art, politics, class, race, gender, and commerce with an eye toward the ever mutable American character.

Fourteen paintings and all the decorative arts in the show are from the Art Institute's own holdings. The foresighted museum acquired the indelible Nighthawks, the centerpiece of a gallery in the show devoted to early modern­ism, soon after Edward Hopper completed the nocturnal portrait of a diner in 1942. The origi­nal diner, we learn, was a horse-drawn wagon in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872 that served meals to evening laborers. Not interested in food, Hopper provokes curiosity in the after-hours activities of mute strangers who conspicuously consume nothing but coffee and cigarettes.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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