Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 6, 2021
Allison Deutsch Consuming Painting: Food and the Feminine in Impressionist Paris University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2021. 216 pp.; 25 color ills.; 33 b/w ills. Cloth $94.95 (9780271087238)

Georges Seurat’s monumental A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884, Art Institute of Chicago) hung alongside paintings by Camille Pissarro and newcomer Paul Signac at the last Impressionist exhibition. Those who visited in May 1886 encountered a new painterly mode called “néo-impressionisme” as defined by Félix Fénéon. With their pointillist technique, Neo-Impressionists applied tight dabs of unblended paint, rather than employing the push-and-pull of the gestural, colorful strokes of the Impressionist painters. Complementary hues—red lake and viridian green, for example—appear side by side in pointillist imagery. These painters believed that those dabs of color mixed optically so that viewers saw a unified form or a gradation of hue. Fénéon’s criticism subordinated the Impressionist painters to the emerging Neo-Impressionists. Whereas the former “captur[ed] . . . fugitive appearances,” the latter aspired to the loftier aim of “perpetuat[ing] one’s sensation of [the landscape]” (“Le Néo-impressionisme,” Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, University of California Press, 1994, 162). The Neo-Impressionists generated a new, innovative exchange between the viewer and the canvas; the Impressionists simply grounded the eye in an idiosyncratic surface.

Allison Deutsch’s Consuming Painting: Food and the Feminine in Impressionist Paris runs with and against the current that Fénéon and other critics stirred a century ago. She aligns with Féneon’s emphasis on the interaction between painterly surface and sensation, but she also wants to demonstrate how that interaction operates in the work of Édouard Manet and the Impressionists. To do so, Deutsch returns to seminal critics of the Impressionists like Louis Leroy and Jules Laforgue to argue that the rhetoric surrounding food in the nineteenth century allows us to view a painting’s surface in dialogue with sensorial aspects. By considering viewership as a consumptive practice—like eating or cooking—Deutsch leads readers through rich interpretations of works by Manet, Pissarro, and Gustave Caillebotte, among others. An astute observer and authoritative writer, she convincingly shows how culinary culture can serve as an entrée into an exploration of visceral experience, embodiment, and gendered power dynamics. Her research not only challenges accounts of modern art from those who focus on opticality by highlighting the connection between visual and corporal responses to painting; it also revises the work of art historians like Michael Fried. Although Fried, as Deutsch notes, addresses embodiment, she complicates his “paradigm shift from the corporeal to the ocular” by demonstrating “the relationship between them” (7). The result is a book that draws on culinary metaphors and figures in criticism and literature to reorient our understanding of the historical import of Impressionist paintings. 

The opening chapter, “Metaphor and Materiality in Nineteenth-Century Art Criticism,” focuses on the work of Manet and provides the interdisciplinary theoretical framework for the rest of the book. Deutsch examines how culinary references permeated nineteenth-century literature and art criticism and, in turn, helped to establish a “model of spectatorship in which viewing painting was profoundly embodied” (11–12). Compelling readings of Émile Zola’s criticism and his 1873 Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), a novel set in a central food market, figure prominently alongside passages in which Charles Baudelaire’s cutting response to a painting leaves him nauseated. Deutsch shows how the gustatory metaphors that appear in these writers’ works overlap with painterly qualities: they blend, transform, and eventually simmer like a “ragoût” (25). Specifically, she argues that Manet’s brushstrokes can help bring the visceral, all-encompassing effect of the modernist canvas to the fore. Deutsch analyzes Manet’s Fish (Still Life) (1864, Art Institute of Chicago) as an example. While Jeannene M. Pryzblyski, Carol Armstrong, and most recently Marni Reva Kessler have examined the painting’s materiality, sensorial experience, and association with death and loss, Deutsch connects the act of licking the fish’s “buttery belly” to other senses, like touching, swallowing, and even sexual arousal (42). Her analysis deftly establishes the intimate exchange between lush, vigorous paint strokes and references to the mouth. The painting consequently elicits a bodily response in the viewer by igniting senses other than sight.

If the first chapter establishes a clear dialogue between eating and viewing, subsequent chapters tease out issues of gender as they appear in culinary tropes. “The Flesh of Painting,” the second chapter, examines the relation between a female nude, sexual politics, and meat. In a discussion of the critical reception of Manet’s Olympia (1863, Musée d’Orsay), Deutsch spotlights the connection between Manet’s nude and raw or rotting meat. She argues that Olympia was figuratively and literally dissected by its critics like a spoiled steak—poked and prodded for freshness and desirability. This critical butchery parallels Zola’s scientific analysis of Manet and ultimately transforms the artist into “the object of a critical vivisection” (57). Establishing the language of cooking, eating, and decomposing perishables in the context of Zola and Manet allows Deutsch to shift her attention to Caillebotte’s Veal in a Butcher’s Shop (ca. 1882, private collection). This painting depicts a carcass decorated with flowers hanging in a shop window. Deutsch interprets it as a “Modern Olympia” and a metaphorical response to the anxious or vulnerable experience critics found in Manet and expressed through culinary terms (71). Unsettling, anxiety-inducing metaphors extend to the viewer and parallel the encounter with transgressive subject matter.

The last two chapters continue to explore culinary metaphors by addressing pastries and farming respectively. In contrast to the relationship of modern art and butchery, Deutsch focuses on the artist as a pastry chef, building the painting layer by layer. For example, Caillebotte’s Langouste à la Parisienne (1880–82, private collection) shows how crustacean antennae become paintbrushes, lobster tails crinoline, and exoskeletons corsets. The layered flesh of the spiny lobster topped with black bits of truffle in Caillebotte’s painting parallels the pattern of the tiered dress dotted with ribbons in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Swing (1876, Musée d’Orsay). These associations serve as a unique entry point into a discussion of a fashionable, urban woman and paintings of food that correspond to female flesh. Both food and women are consumed­­, “readily available for possession by eye and mouth” (110). A “reciprocity between alimentary and sexual consumption” suggests, moreover, a relationship between the Langouste à la Parisienne and the Parisienne à la mode, between an elite national dish and the revered fashion plate (110). Reading the lobster dish in this way underscores the “feminized” aspects of Caillebotte’s painting (111).

Finally, in the last chapter Deutsch analyzes the connection between painting and agriculture. She focuses on cabbages in Pissarro’s peasant paintings and returns to Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris to show how representation of rural produce by the painter and novelist differ. Zola conflates La Sarriette, a market seller, with the fruit in her stall and draws associations to desirable fruit, consumerism, and, by extension, sex work. Pissarro, on the other hand, does not connect peasant women to the rustic vegetables they sell at market. In The Market on the Grande-Rue, Gisors (1885, private collection) and similar works, Deutsch highlights critical accounts that commented on the disjunction in his paintings to argue that the cabbage represented a rupture in facture, perspective, and hue. She thus points to a tension between the subject—the peasant untouched by modern life, preserved in an unchanging rural past—and the artist’s revolutionary use of the medium in order to unhinge the notion of Pissarro as a static naturalist through the seemingly innocuous use of cabbages.

Consuming Painting teaches us that the culinary language found in art criticism and literature allows for an alternate investigation of modernism. Deutsch’s meditation on the multisensory experience of nineteenth-century art reveals how odor, indigestion, and delectability coalesce to position corporeality in its central role. In addition to revising canonical accounts of modern art, however, her emphasis on an embodied viewership goes further. Consuming Painting’s most significant claim is that the rhetoric of ingestion and the metaphorical references to food challenged the nineteenth-century valorization of critical detachment. The writers Deutsch addresses not only undermined their ocular-centric authority but also eroded the masculine perspective their texts championed. As a result, Deutsch’s compelling revisionist account of Impressionism offers provocative readings of art, literature, and criticism and contributes to the scholarship on the gendered politics of visual culture.

Christa DiMarco
University of the Arts