Banquets and feasts are a popular theme for paintings, as they have been in photography. This weekend I’m going to look at selections of paintings of the other two universal mealtimes, breakfast and lunch, including those breakfasts which are sufficiently leisurely as to merge into lunchtime. Although most of these paintings are from the nineteenth century and later, I’ll include some significant works from earlier.
I start with one of the strangest breakfasts of all: the third of Botticelli’s magnificent paintings of The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti from 1482-83. This depicts the breakfast scene in this gruesome story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. I have written a fuller account of this story, together with images of the whole series of paintings, in this article.
This is a full-on breakfast banquet attended by members of two noble families of Ravenna, Italy. In the midst of this al fresco meal, the naked ghost of a dead woman appears, being chased by the ghost of a man on horseback. She is then attacked by ghostly dogs and murdered by the man – all in front of the guests as they’re tucking into the meal. Nastagio’s love is sitting at the table on the left, from which all the women are rising in distress at the sight, spilling their food in front of them.
By the late nineteenth century, breakfasts had become rather more orderly and far less shocking. Just a year before his untimely death in 1884, the Italian peri-Impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis painted this startling Breakfast in the Garden, with its contrast between the detail of the glass soda syphon, covered bowl, glasses, and other reflective materials on the table, and its wonderfully sketchy garden background.
I don’t know if the Swedish painter Hanna Hirsch (Pauli) saw that painting, but a few years later she used an outdoor table for her virtuoso painting of Breakfast-Time (1887). This strikes a wonderful balance between the painterliness of the ground and wooden furniture, and sufficient detail (below) to bring the silverware, porcelain and abundant glassware to life. She was only 23 when she completed this.
Another Impressionist, this time the American William Merritt Chase, caught his young family at their Open Air Breakfast in about 1888. They are seen in the backyard of Chase’s parents’ house in Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn. The artist’s sister-in-law Virginia is lounging in the hammock, as his wife feeds their first child, Alice or ‘Cosy’, in a highchair. Standing on the right is Chase’s sister Hattie, and at the left, asleep on the grass, is the family’s dog.
The Danish painter Laurits Andersen Ring’s wife Sigrid is the subject At Breakfast in 1898. She sits reading the ‘leftist’ daily newspaper Politiken in the sunshine. The artist had been an early subscriber to that paper when it first started to publish in 1884; it played an important role in the formation of the Social Liberal Party in Denmark, and remains one of the country’s leading ‘broadsheet’ papers.
Pierre Bonnard’s many domestic interiors include plenty of helpings of breakfast. In about 1899, he painted the muse and patron Misia Natanson at Breakfast, looking sultry, with one of her family’s maids at work in the background.
A couple of years later, fellow Nabi artist Maurice Denis painted the most patterned painting I have ever seen in his Breakfast, with its superb backdrop of the coast on a windy day.
Like Le Sidaner just a few years later, Pierre Bonnard painted laid-out tables as a form of still life. In 1908 these became more frequent, as in this Breakfast under the Arbour from 1908.
William McGregor Paxton, a great admirer of Vermeer who adopted the Dutch master’s optical techniques, seems to have painted The Breakfast in 1911 as a ‘problem picture’. As their maid walks out of the dining room, a young wife stares thoughtfully away from her husband, who is showing no interest in her at all, as he hides behind the pages of a broadsheet newspaper. You could cut the atmosphere here with a knife.
In Édouard Vuillard’s Reading in the Dining Room, Vaucresson from 1924, Lucy Hessel has already left her husband Jos reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, and gone to busy herself in the next room. Behind this mundane domestic scene is deeper complexity: Jos and Lucy Hessel were close friends of the artist, so close that at the time of this painting Vuillard – then in his mid-fifties – and Lucy were lovers.
In about 1930, when Pierre Bonnard painted his wife Marthe hunched up over the table at Breakfast, they had been married for just five of the thirty-seven years they had been living together. Although Bonnard’s many paintings of her nude hardly show any signs of her age, here she looks more as you might expect for a woman who had already turned sixty.
Bonnard also set the breakfast table into his best-developed framed external view, The Breakfast Room (Dining Room Overlooking the Garden) from 1930-31. This combines the still life of the laid table in the foreground, the powerful vertical framing of French windows, and the rich terrace landscape beyond. Ghostly repoussoir is provided by thin slivers of figures at the edges of his canvas.
Tomorrow I will turn to look at lunch.