Art of the Feast

It's time to let out your belt and don the elastic waist pants, Thanksgiving is upon us. Thanksgiving is a time to sit around the table with loved ones, enjoy a plentiful feast and be thankful for our blessings. In honor of the holiday, we explore the enduring theme of food and celebration in art.

The Bacchanal: Ancient Rome to the Renaissance

In ancient times, Roman feasts were legendary. Frescoes on palace walls in Pompeii have been known to depict the act of vomiting after eating large quantities of food in order to continue the revelry. In the Renaissance, the Bacchanal (the feast of  Silenius aka Bacchus, the God of Wine) was a common subject for painters such as Poussin, Titian, Velazquez and Rubens.

Ministrant Carrying a Tray of Food with Silenus Playing a Lyre and a Young Satyr Playing a Syrinx, North Wall, Oecus 5, 60-50 BC (fresco), Roman, (1st century BC) / Villa dei Misteri, Pompeii, Italy


Triumph of Bacchus, 1628 (oil on canvas), Velazquez, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y (1599-1660) / Prado, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images


Ms 65/1284 fol.1v January: Banquet Scene, detail of the left hand side, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, early 15th century (vellum) (detail of 8433), Limbourg Brothers (fl.1400-1416) / Musee Conde, Chantilly, France


High Society in the Middle Ages

Sandwiched in between antiquity and the Renaissance, came the more austere period of the Middle Ages. The daily life of Medieval courtiers and royalty was chronicled in manuscripts called Books of Hours. These books typically contained scenes from the life of the person who commissioned the book along with prayers and church and lunar calendars. One of the most important of these manuscripts is the 15th century Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which contains elaborate illustrations such as the detail of the Duke's household exhanging gifts over a meal (left).


Still Life & Merry Company in the Dutch Golden Age

17th century Dutch painters were masters of realism, but ingrained in every painting is an allegorical view of nature that conveyed moralizing messages to its contemporary viewer. These still life paintings look inviting enough to eat, but nestled within are subtle messages about the transcience of life: partially peeled fruit, a toppled glass, a half-eaten pie. Artists such as Willem Claesz Heda, Pieter Claesz and Willem Kalf were masters of this genre. Dutch painters were also wonderful at painting scenes of everyday life which have come to be known as merry companies. They involve a group of people enjoying food, drink and music or games in a private house or tavern. Like the still life paintings the mundane subject matter always contained a hidden moral subtext. Frans Hals, Jan Steen and Gerrit van Honthorst are artists who excelled in this genre at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, but it could be said that Pieter Bruegel is the father of the merry company.

Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the St. Sebastian Archers' Guild, Lobster and Glasses, c.1653 (oil on canvas), Kalf, Willem (1619-93) / National Gallery, London, UK / Bridgeman Images
The Bean Feast, 1668 (oil on canvas), Steen, Jan Havicksz. (1625/26-79) / Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany / © Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel / Ute Brunzel / Bridgeman Images
Flask, Glass and Fruit, 1877, Cezanne, Paul (1839-1906) / Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

Quiet Celebrations of Beauty

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists also painted everyday subject matter, but without the Dutch penchant for moral subtext. No longer was a still life painting a beautiful shell for a deeper message. Painters such as Cezanne and Pierre Bonnard saw beauty, light and color in simple peaches, apples and table settings. Their paintings are quiet celebrations, but celebrations nonetheless.


It is thought that the origin of our modern-day Thanksgiving comes from the pilgrim celebration of the first harvest in the new world after surviving a brutal winter. Legend has it that the festival was attended by Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe. This feast had very little in common with our contemporary Thanksgiving meal. Early colonial life was very primitive; foods such as dried fruits, boiled fish and vegetables would have been served; a meal of excess and revelry would have been unheard of. Our modern Thanksgiving has moved far beyond the pious pilgrim feast and into the realm of the bacchanal and merry company.

The American Wild Turkey Cock (oil on canvas), Audubon, John James (1785-1851) / © University of Liverpool Art Gallery & Collections, UK / Bridgeman Images


Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot (colour litho), American School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images


Gravy, 2008-09 (mixed media), Henry John,   / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images



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