All About Eats: Art and the American Imagination in Chicago

Hopper's asceticism is at odds with the abundant sensuality of much of Art and Appetite. From John Singleton Copley's 1771 portrait of Mrs. Ezekiel Goldthwait (Fig. 4), whose plump hand reaching for ripe fruit suggests the unsettling nexus of food, sex, wealth, and power, to the insipid allure of Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert of 1960 by Wayne Thiebaud, paintings of food have often advertised a voluptuous prosperity. It is no accident that the first American still-life painters looked to the Dutch masters and that both catered to a rising middle class that frankly savored its pleasures. Organizers contextualize paintings such as Raphaelle Peale's 1822 Still Life-Strawberries, Nuts &c. (Fig. 6) by showing them alongside the worldly goods that helped inspire such canvases.

Fig. 6. Still Life-Strawberries, Nuts, &c., by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), 1822. Signed and dated "Raphaelle Peale Pinxt/ 1822" at lower right. Oil on wood panel, 16 ⅜ by 22 ¾ inches. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Jamee J. and Marshall Field.

The elegant botanical paintings of Peale and his uncle James Peale constitute the first great wave of American still-life painting and spill over more than one gallery of the exhibition. That the Peales embraced the genre is unsurprising, argue Barter and her colleague Annelise K. Madsen, given Philadelphia's reputation as a horticultural hot spot and center for scientific inquiry. By 1813 Rapha­elle Peale was filling the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy with works such as Melons and Morning Glories (Fig. 7). Characteristically, his treatment of the halved watermelon, a domesti­cated plant and popular American food by the colonial era, is both a cool-headed appeal to reason and a seductive invitation to partake.

Cities renowned for great dining, Chicago among them, have often been transportation hubs. As early as 1803 Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of the port city of New Orleans in feeding the popula­tions of the southern and western territories. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and improving rail connections created new markets for regional special­ties, from pineapples to terrapin soup. In 1876 William Emerson Baker, the mildly eccentric sewing machine magnate and hygienic farming enthusiast, captured the spirit of the age in The Porcineograph, a pig-shaped map of the United States promoting pork for every reason and season (Fig. 9).

Oysters, too, have long been something of a national obsession. At GT Fish and Oyster in Chicago's gentrifying River North district today, the smart set pairs crisp white wines with evocatively named bivalves airlifted from the coastal waters of British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Virginia. Like wine tasting, sampling the mollusks has become a form of travel, a far cry from the days when oysters were sold from carts with salt and vinegar on the side. A series of engaging paintings, prints, and objects considers the oyster's progress from street fare to bar food to First Lady Lucy Hayes's table (see Fig. 15).

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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