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Art Institute exhibit chews on food in painting, sculpture

Roy Lichtenstein. Turkey 1961. Private collection. © Estate Roy Lichtenstein.

Roy Lichtenstein. Turkey, 1961. Private collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

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‘Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine’

Nov. 12-Jan. 27

Where: Art Institute of Chicago,
111 S. Michigan

Tickets : Free, with regular museum admission

Info: (312) 443-3600;

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Updated: December 12, 2013 6:12AM

With “Top Chef” and at least two dozen other restaurant and cooking shows on television, an explosion of farmers markets and culinary festivals and surging interest in organic farming, local sourcing and craft beers, the United States has become a food-crazed country.

The timing could hardly be better for “Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine,” a major exhibition opening Nov. 12 at the Art Institute of Chicago and continuing through Jan. 27.

As delighted as the curator, Judith Barter, would be if this culinary mania bolsters attendance, tapping into it was not her chief motivation in organizing this show, which will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

Instead, she saw the exhibition as an opportunity to bring together her two passions — art and food by taking an unprecedented look at American art history through the prism of food and the surprisingly complex social, political and cultural context surrounding it.

“I could do a history of American painting show from 1760 to 1960, and so what?” said Barter, the museum’s Field-McCormick Chair and Curator of American Art. “It’s been done 100,000 times, and, in a way, I think those shows are too big to teach anyone anything.

“I like to teach, and I think this show will teach people something about what was valued in their own culture, what these pictures meant at the time they were painted to a contemporary audience and what foods people enjoyed — what life was like.”

In addition to the 78 paintings that form the core of the exhibition, “Art and Appetite” contains sculptures, decorative objects, cookbooks and menus — 115 selections in all, organized into thematic, loosely chronological groupings such as “Parties, Picnics and Feasts” and “Tromple l’Oeil Painting and Politics.”

Many of the showcased artists are familiar names — Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, William Harnett, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Raphaelle Peale, Norman Rockwell and Wayne Thiebaud. Others are all but unknown.

Barter knew many of the works she wanted to feature in this exhibition, but some she uncovered during her research and still others she came across by sheer luck. While in Maryland for lecture, for example, she stumbled on Andrew John Henry Way’s “Oysters in Half Shell” (1863) at the Maryland Historical Society and immediately realized it should be in the exhibition.

The beginnings of “Art and Appetite” date to a sabbatical that Barter took in 2001 when she spent a year doing research on culinary history at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She returned to it about six years ago and began working on the show in earnest.

The curator’s starting point was the simple notion that American still-life paintings often are more than just pretty pictures. While art historians have long studied famed 17th-century Dutch still-lifes in terms of the politics and economics of the time, they have not looked in the same way at their later American counterparts.

“You can look at a picture and say, ‘Oh, there is an apple and an orange and a pear and isn’t that pretty?’” Barter said. “But if you know something about that apple and that orange and that pear or you know that there is a banana in there and that bananas were really rare in this country before 1860, then it becomes more interesting.”

According to her, nearly every painting in this exhibition contains meanings that might not be readily apparent, especially to 21st century viewers. Take James Peale’s “Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables” (1820s), which appears to be an innocuous depiction of late-summer collection of squash, cabbage and eggplant.

But oddly, Peale includes a cucumber-shaped balsam apple (more likely a balsam pear), which actually is not a fruit but a poisonous plant. Why? Barter suggests that this was a cautionary note about finite agricultural resources even in the vast expanse of the fast-growing United States and the need for soil conservation — a topic being discussed at the time.

“I really like to delve into the cultural history around an art object,” she said. “That to me is more fun than just formal analysis, so I hope people who come to the show will have fun doing that — thinking about these pictures differently.”

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