It’s now more than a year since we last had a meal out and ate it indoors. For much of that time (or so it seems), we’ve been in lockdown anyway. But when restrictions were eased for the latter half of last year, and over the last few weeks, we’ve enjoyed our weekly lunch with the family outdoors.
To celebrate the al fresco meal, this weekend I look not at plein air paintings, but paintings of meals eaten en plein air. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, this is just the time that we can start dining out outside, and picnicking without developing hypothermia.
In paintings of classical mythology, when the gods feasted together, it was always outdoors. Presumably with Jupiter present they were guaranteed fine weather, and no chance of a thunderstorm.
The best-known of these outdoor Olympian feasts was that celebrating the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, in which the happy couple were a mere background to this opening chapter of the history of the Trojan War.
In Jacob Jordaens’ Golden Apple of Discord, the facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table. At the left, Minerva reaches forward for it; in front of her, Venus, her son Cupid at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple; on the other side of the table, Juno reaches her hand out for it too.
This modern version, painted by Edward Burne-Jones as The Feast of Peleus in 1872-81, uses a composition based on classical representations of the Last Supper. This brings Eris in at the far right, her golden apple still concealed. Every head has turned towards her, apart from that of the centaur behind her right wing. Goblets and bowls are well-filled, and as yet there’s no sign of anyone making a start on the meal, although I can’t see that Olympian gathering waiting for grace.
There are other thoroughly secular meals which set precedent, including a breakfast banquet held in the countryside near Ravenna, as told in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The third of Botticelli’s magnificent paintings of The Story of Nastagio Degli Onesti from 1482-83 depicts the breakfast scene in Boccaccio’s gruesome and thoroughly secular story. I have written a fuller account of this, accompanied by 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.
The picnic didn’t really arrive until the eighteenth century, but working meals taken outdoors have always been common. They form the basis for both religious and secular stories, including that of Ruth and Boaz.
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. She is looking down at her hands, as if contemplating grain held in her left palm, while he has turned to look towards her. This looks more like a romantic picnic to me.
Curiously, the word picnic comes from the French pique-nique, not the other way around. It was originally applied to outdoor meals taken as part of a trip out, typically to a park or other scenic surroundings. They became popular following the French Revolution, and by the nineteenth century were well-established across much of Europe, at least among the genteel and better-off, and in warmer weather. That inevitably led to their adoption as a theme for paintings, some of which have become among the most famous of that time.
Édouard Manet painted what must be the best known picnic 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, and that meal was but a side-order to their main.
A couple of years later, Jules Noel’s Panorama of the Town of Dieppe (c 1865) rescued the picnic from Manet’s controversies, with a large picnic party on the cliffs overlooking the town of Dieppe.
Above all else, picnics are family meals, as in Eugène Lepoittevin’s Picnic from 1866, which captures their distinctive combination of the planned and impromptu. This group has lugged crockery, soup and a folding stool for their simple meal sitting on the grass under some trees.
Sometimes it’s the journey and location which are more important than the reward of a meal.
Eilert Adelsteen Normann’s From Romsdal Fjord, painted in 1875, shows the ninth longest fjord in Norway, which carves its way through a huge mountain gorge. A party of well-dressed people are arriving in small boats, for a picnic on a rock spit.
For those not wishing to bring their own picnic, inns and restaurants are keen to offer a convenient if more costly version of the outdoor meal, usually with the protection of a roof and an adjacent building in case the weather turns foul.
Renoir’s masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party is set on the Île de Chatou under the awning of 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 meal seems all but over, the wineglasses near-empty as the party turns from eating to conversation.
In summer, breakfast has become a favourite meal outdoors in your own garden. 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.
If you’ll excuse me, I now have to finish my lunch outside my local pub. I’ll return tomorrow with the second course.