Discomfort Food

The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

2021
Author:

Marni Reva Kessler

Discomfort Food

An intricate and provocative journey through nineteenth-century depictions of food and the often uncomfortable feelings they evoke


In Discomfort Food, scholar Marni Reva Kessler trains her inquisitive eye on the depictions of food in nineteenth-century French art. Arguing that disjointed senses of anxiety, nostalgia, and melancholy underlie the superficial abundance in works by Manet, Degas, and others, Kessler shows how, in their images, food presented a spectrum of pleasure and unease associated with modern life.

Intensely personal and beautifully written, Discomfort Food takes up the uncanny undertow of the apparently anodyne genre of still life in nineteenth-century France. Marni Reva Kessler brings to bear all the memories and associations attendant upon things like a fish stew in the making or an outsized mound of butter and eggs, weaving her readings of these works together with fascinating visual comparisons and a vast array of historical knowledge about the pressures informing the making, consumption, and representation of food.

Carol Armstrong, Yale University

At a time when chefs are celebrities and beautifully illustrated cookbooks, blogs, and Instagram posts make our mouths water, scholar Marni Reva Kessler trains her inquisitive eye on the depictions of food in nineteenth-century French art. Arguing that disjointed senses of anxiety, nostalgia, and melancholy underlie the superficial abundance in works by Manet, Degas, and others, Kessler shows how, in their images, food presented a spectrum of pleasure and unease associated with modern life.

Utilizing close analysis and deep archival research, Kessler discovers the complex narratives behind such beloved works as Manet’s Fish (Still Life) and Antoine Vollon’s Internet-famous Mound of Butter. Kessler brings to these works an expansive historical review, creating interpretations rich in nuance and theoretical implications. She also transforms the traditional paradigm for study of images of edible subjects, showing that simple categorization as still life is not sufficient.

Discomfort Food marks an important contribution to conversations about a fundamental theme that unites us as humans: food. Suggestive and accessible, it reveals the very personal, often uncomfortable feelings hiding within the relationship between ourselves and the representations of what we eat.

Discomfort Food

Marni Reva Kessler is professor of art history in the Kress Foundation Department of Art History at the University of Kansas. She is author of Sheer Presence: The Veil in Manet’s Paris (Minnesota, 2006).

Discomfort Food

Intensely personal and beautifully written, Discomfort Food takes up the uncanny undertow of the apparently anodyne genre of still life in nineteenth-century France. Marni Reva Kessler brings to bear all the memories and associations attendant upon things like a fish stew in the making or an outsized mound of butter and eggs, weaving her readings of these works together with fascinating visual comparisons and a vast array of historical knowledge about the pressures informing the making, consumption, and representation of food.

Carol Armstrong, Yale University

Marni Reva Kessler invites us on a compelling personal journey in food and art that begins with Manet’s still life, Poisson, etc. Fishy dead bodies abound in this gruesome whodunit. The detective, a sinister wet eel, sniffs and snakes through the evidence: a wide-eyed gurnard, a gasping mullet, a lemon flashing a yellow warning, and oysters cowering in the background. All of this in exquisite prose, as sharp as a knife.

Thomas Parker, author of Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea

Discomfort Food reads like a novel. I turned the pages with bated breath, waiting for ‘what would happen’ in the unfolding of a series of dazzling arguments. This is fine stuff, each word wrapped in a dappled tone and lush register conveying, like the glowing fruits in Caillebotte's painting or the nacred fish scales and oyster shells in Manet’s fish painting, a gorgeousness of effect.

Janet Beizer, Harvard University*

Discomfort Food

Contents


List of Illustrations


Beginnings


1. Édouard Manet’s Fish (Still Life) and the Melancholy of the Mullet


2. Clarifying and Compounding Antoine Vollon’s Mound of Butter


3. Gustave Caillebotte’s Fruit Displayed on a Stand and the Ghost of the Lost City


4. Edgar Degas’s Beef and the Double Life of Édouard Manet’s Ham


“Ending with the Beginning”


Acknowledgments


Notes


Bibliography


Index