Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt

Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt

May 24, 2019

Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt

When did the Still Life with food genre begin? The golden age of this form of art came during the height of the Flemish school of painting, but the genre began a century earlier, when stories from the Bible were painted between a steak and a sausage.

When we visit famous Art Museums around the world, we tend to walk past a Still Life with a quick glance: they tend to depict food or flowers or both, sometimes with the addition of objects such as books or musical instruments.

Although the almost photographic precision of some of these works may temporarily attract our attention, most of the time we assume that they are uninteresting: there’s no personality, no narrative. They look like stylistic exercises, painted by the artist only to show off their technique. 

Their popularity reached its peak in the golden age of Flemish art. It’s frequently extremely difficult for non-specialists to tell one still life painter from another, which also lowers their interest. 

However, food is a protagonist in many of these paintings. As a result, a question comes into mind: when did food become an artistic subject? Food is depicted throughout the history of art, but only as details of a wider narrative. The first paintings that made food their protagonist started to appear in the early17th century, when Flanders freed itself from the political yoke of Spain and developed a new class of wealthy bourgeois merchants. For them, food was a status symbol depicting their wealth, as were paintings that showed the variety of gastronomic items on their tables. Eating well was a pleasure that they liked to boast about.

Experts have identified a precursor of the Flemish still life trend in Pieter Aertsen, a Dutch painter who, in 1551, half a century before the "official" birth of this pictorial genre, painted a butcher's stall. In the center of the picture, framed between a quarter of ox and a pig's snout, hangs a depiction of the Flight into Egypt

Aertsen, who is considered an exponent of Mannerism, was applying a so-called "thematic inversion". Food is no longer a narrative accessory or a decorative element, it is the dominant protagonist, while the biblical story is literally set among the butcher’s cuts, partly hidden behind the pig's ear. Even more curiously, in the distance, on the right side of the canvas, a man and a woman are shown in a romantic attitude, as if to remind the spectator that the entire composition is celebrating a scene of normal Dutch domesticity. 

After this work – in which a painting of a biblical scene is seen in the distance, but swamped by heaps of food in the foreground – Aertsen continued to paint scenes in which foreground food dominates distant everyday domestic life... with or without a biblical element. 

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