After the breakfasts of yesterday’s article, we come on to lunch. Whereas the artist’s breakfast is often less about preparation for the day than postponing its start indefinitely, lunchtime is in the day’s midst, a meal taken between morning activities and those of the afternoon – which could range from social gossip to arduous work.
Diego Velázquez’s early bodegone paintings established his brilliance with their genre scenes centred on food and meals. His Peasants at Table, from 1618-19, was an improved composition derived from his earlier Three Men at Table, who are here engaging with one another as they eat a simple meal of fish and bread, with the occasional glass of wine.
Walter Crane’s painting, which is in oils despite resembling a watercolour illustration, shows the Old Testament figures of Ruth and Boaz at the end of lunch, when Ruth was gleaning the fields owned and farmed by Boaz. Their dress is an odd composite of the Biblical and Arthurian. She is looking down at her hands, as if contemplating grain held in her left palm, while he has turned to look towards her. In the background Boaz’s paid employees continue with their harvest, saddled horses are idle, and a castellated house is set in the crag behind them.
In the same year, Édouard Manet painted what must be the best known lunch of them all, in his Luncheon on the Grass (1863). These two couples are apparently disinterested in the token picnic of fruit and bread which has spilled out from its basket in the left foreground. As the two men talk, fully dressed, a conspicuously naked woman stares unnervingly at the viewer, and the other woman is washing herself in the river behind. If they have indulged in any fruit, it is of the ‘forbidden’ kind.
For several other painters of the late nineteenth century, lunch was the time and place for their great figurative set pieces, such as Renoir’s masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party, on which he started work in the summer of 1880, completing it the following year.
This is set on the Île de Chatou at the Restaurant Fournaise. Among his models are his partner and later wife Aline Charigot (left foreground, with affenpinscher dog), the actress Jeanne Samary (upper right), and fellow artist Gustave Caillebotte (seated, lower right). This work was praised by several of the critics who saw it exhibited at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882.
For other artists, lunch wasn’t an indulgent social occasion, but a snack taken in the midst of the working day. In the case of many Naturalist artists, that meant a simple rustic occasion.
Wilhelm Friedenberg’s undated The Goose Girl’s Lunch shows a younger girl, plainly dressed as a ‘peasant’ and barefoot, sat as she enjoys a short break with her lunch. A younger brother, who presumably brought the wicker basket out to her, is fast asleep at her side.
Laurits Andersen Ring was even more pointed in his social message in A Boy and a Girl Eating Lunch, from 1884. Paupers’ children, they have a single bowl of broth between them, and there’s not even a hint of wine and fruit. The girl looks up in tears, hoping for a miracle to change their lives, and take them away from this bare wooden table and blackened walls.
Naturalist artists painted both extremes. Now almost forgotten is Émile Friant’s masterpiece The Meurthe Boating Party, also known as Reunion of the Meurthe Boating Party or The Oarsmen of the Meurthe, from 1887. This shows the artist’s watersporting friends eating lunch together on the river Meurthe in Nancy.
This painting can be read as a broad message of well-being and conviviality: healthy, fit young men engaged in team sports; fraternity; and harmony across different classes within society. It was exhibited at the Salon in 1888, and as a result of its success there was featured as a full page in the popular magazine Le Monde Illustré, bringing Friant instant fame across the country.
The Belgian artist Émile Claus fell under the influence of the Impressionists, particularly Monet, Sisley, Renoir, and Pissarro, and came to appreciate the work of Anders Zorn and Le Sidaner. His painting of The Picnic from 1887 is set in the French/Belgian countryside around the River Lys, in the area of Ypres, which was devastated during the First World War. The plain clothing seen indicates that these figures are poor farmworkers.
The German painter of rustic scenes Friedrich Eckenfelder painted this Lunchbreak by the Cottage in 1888, which shows a small group of farmworkers sitting in the shade and eating lunch as their horses eat theirs.
There are still the occasional flights of fancy, like François Flameng’s undated Picnic. He returns to an earlier era, probably the eighteenth century, when the biggest question of the day is whether the servants brought the right wine.
Picnics were an occasional motif for Impressionist painters, notably this work by Renoir from about 1893, whose original French title is exactly the same as Manet’s earlier painting. Here Renoir explores the rich effects of dappled light, and details of the meal these three women, two children and a couple of dogs are sharing, are almost obscured.
In the late nineteenth century, the great Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla had been an enthusiastic Naturalist. One of his last substantial works showing everyday poverty is Lunch on the Boat, painted in 1898. This shows a group of Valencian men and boys eating an improvised lunch under the awning on their fishing boat.
George Hendrik Breitner’s Lunch Break at the Building Site in the Van Diemenstraat in Amsterdam (1896-1900) shows a group of building workers sitting outside on a brighter day during their short lunchtime.
Pierre Bonnard seems to have had a liking for cats, which appear in several of his paintings, such as The Cats’ Lunch from about 1906. Two women are sat at the table, feeding their four cats. The women don’t look at the cats, nor at one another, but stare blankly into the space in front of them.
Finally, Albin Egger-Lienz painted this poignant image of agricultural workers eating their Lunch (The Soup II) in 1910. Five working men in a family have sat down together to eat a minimal meal of soup in the middle of the day, before returning to the fields. Each is armed with their own spoon, with which they feed from the single pot in the centre of the table.
Paintings of these two meals show how diverse art was in the nineteenth century, and reflect on its social concerns and stories. Unlike dinners and banquets, they include people of all classes, tables both flamboyant and frugal.