Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Twenty » from POETICS OF STILL LIFE: A COLLAGE


Robert Vas Dias





From the earliest times that we know of in Egypt, food was given by pious offspring to their deceased parents: the ka, or soul, could eat… And when, after a long time, there was no more family to feed actual food to an ancestor, there was a picture of a meal painted on the tomb wall, and the ka could survive on that until the coming forth by day of Osiris….        


Stele of Princess Nefertiabet and food placed in her tomb.

Old Kingdom 4th Dynasty, Reign of Cheops, 2590-2565 BCE.

Painting on limestone. Paris, Musée du Louvre.


All this food and drink

pictured to keep her spirit –


the ‘Beautiful One 0f the East’ –

fed, hacked from her tomb


at Giza by Champollion,

Auguste Mariette, some other


crazed souvenir plunderer

of the fabled, shipped to France,


there to keep curators curating

and gallery-goers going: so


a picture reincarnates:

why not? – matter becomes



image becomes spirit,

art the food for millennia 


though her stele thieved;

it doesn’t matter, she’s here


though red, yellow, black,

aeons-faded, green nearly gone;


it doesn’t matter,

matter becomes immortal.


The stele’s raison d’être was essentially practical: the images it featured (Nefertiabet’s food and material possessions) were brought to life from the moment of its creation and for ever after—thereby ensuring the princess eternal life and its attendant pleasures. A double rectangle above the table contains the inscription of items such as cosmetics, drinks, and various delicacies. A large vertical panel on the right, divided into three sections, lists the many pieces of fabric offered to the princess. Finally, a number of ideograms used pictorially, in front of the princess’s face and around the table, express the essential elements of the offering: ‘libation’ (in front of her face), ‘lustration’ before her chest, ‘leg of beef,’ ‘ribs,’ ‘duck,’ ‘linen,’ ‘crockery,’ ‘bread,’ ‘beer,’ ‘meat and poultry,’ ‘thousand,’ ‘thousand,’ ‘thousand!’ The words here are an integral part of the image.




Egyptian art is heavily stylized according to hieroglyphic-based conventions (‘Individual hieroglyphic signs were thus often the models for parts of or even whole works of art or complex compositions….’), but within these conventions individual artists/artisans created a ravishing art.


Table of food offerings surmounted by a bouquet,

 Tomb of Sennedjem, 20th dynasty, Deir el-Medina.


Sennedjem, not of royal or noble birth: an artisan, skilled mason, tomb-builder, lived a privileged life in Deir el-Medina, a village whose ancient name was Set Ma’at, ‘The Place of Truth’; the residents were ‘Servants in the Place of Truth.’  In their off-time – they were not slaves but salaried workers – they could work on their own tombs. Was it Sennedjem himself or an artist-artisan mate who decided to let himself go, bend the rules a little – art rules are meant to be broken – but not enough to incur the wrath of the priest-overseer, by painting on one of the walls of his tomb not a literal hieroglyphic-based decoration but a semi-abstraction, shapes of colour in which the hieroglyphs for food broadly echo the conventional pictorial language paradigm. He got away with it. We can only guess why he did it: he created what he knew was a delight for his eyes in the afterlife, something he could look back on and derive eternal  nourishment from. 


The well-to-do Egyptian conceived of the afterworld as a place where he would continue to enjoy the same privileges he had known on earth, and during his lifetime he helped to prepare for this happy state by investing in a private tomb and seeing to its decoration as a reflection of his earthly environment. 




Human presence is, however, at the very least implicit in any still life, even in a crumpled napkin that retains a gesture….However subtle, human presence is akin to other active forces in ‘still’ life’s interplay between the animate and the inanimate, the moving and the motionless, the quick and the dead.   


Frescos of three vignettes of fruit from the Casa dei Cervi (House of the Deer),

Herculaneum. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.


‘I asked the artist to paint what we have on our shelves at a particular moment. Our family loves peaches, for which our region is noted. I’ve cut open one of the peaches each in the first and third panels to show you the colour and quality of the flesh. On the shelves of the second panel, my favorite silver dish contains mainly dried fruit we like to snack on. Somebody – was it the artist? – has drunk half the glass of wine. I don’t begrudge him. I think he has done the two glass goblets particularly well, don’t you?  How he managed to depict their lambent transparency, I have no idea. I am most pleased with the result. Although my husband thought it ostentatious and unnecessary (the artist was a slave), I was the one who insisted the gold and silver coins be included on the bottom shelf of the second panel: the artist’s tip, you see.’


1  Stalk of peaches and a goblet of water; 2  silver dish containing prunes, dried figs and dates, a gold and silver coin, a glass cup with red wine; 3  stalk of peaches.




…in explaining the prevalence of a field like still life – as of landscape or of subjects from religion, myth and history – we look for the common interests that give that field importance for artists of the most varied temperament and make it a characteristic choice during a period of history. With still life the grounds of interest are more problematic. The painting of still life has in fact been regarded as altogether a negation of the interest in subject-matter….


Roman wall painting from the house of Giulia Felice,

Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.


Julia Felix’s surname did not mean ‘lucky,  fortunate,’ for nothing. She was a woman of means – she owned a sumptuous and large house in Pompeii – and had a social conscience, if one believes the reports. After the damaging earthquake of 62 A.D. (not the Vesuvius eruption that buried the city in 79 A.D.), she decided to alleviate the shortage of housing by letting some of her apartments. As the Forum Baths had been severely damaged, she also opened her private baths to the public. The notice painted on the façade reads: To let, in the estate of Julia Felix, daughter of Spurius: elegant baths for respectable people, shops and independent apartments on the first floor. Or she simply decided to make money. Or both. Of course she didn’t want plebs in her baths.


Fresco showing objects arranged horizontally: a bronze vessel with a spoon balanced on its rim, a bowl of eggs, a brace of dead thrushes on the wall, a bronze hydria, a leaning storage jug, a hanging cloth or napkin.




One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance…  


Juan Sánchez Cotán, 1560–1627, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber,

 1602, oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.


suspended from

                                         ‘somewhere above’


the heavens? 

                                         illusion is all


vegetables orbit

                                         my head

                                                                                  the stage

on the telescope                                                    

                                         of the retina:


gulleys     valleys

                                         spots & knobs                             


by metaphysician

                                         of mysterious



                                         in the frame

                                                                                  of legerdemain


This painting is among the earliest of all European still lifes. Sánchez Cotán was a pioneer of realism in Spanish painting. The framing space, or window, in Sanchez Cotán’s still lifes would probably have been recognised by contemporaries as a cantarero, or primitive larder. The hanging of fruits and vegetables from strings attached somewhere above was an allusion to actual practice that helped to keep them from spoiling.  




 …all ‘representational’ art is shaped by the abstraction of composition, arrangement, contrast, colour, tone, rhythm, interval and repetition, the hidden geometries of figures and forms.


Diego Velázquez, 1599-1660, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,

1618, oil on canvas. London, The National Gallery.


How We Lived


Think of all that’s here and will be

             when I’m not nor ever will be:

a thousand-year-old olive tree still

              surviving somewhere in Iberia

or curious spores under cracked beds

              of dry lakes under Sahel’s sands,


protoplasm bursting up to sprout again

              after flash floods. I’ll leave everything

I’ve ever seen: the view of fields, drystone walls,

              the sea landslipping cliffs, tilting houses,

graves exposing bones on Our Lady of the Island

              conceiving nature morte on land.


And scenes others have seen, Velázquez’s

              interior, fish and eggs arranged

on plates on a table, a resentful Martha

              pestling something in a vessel while

through a window, or in a picture hanging

              on the wall, Christ tête à tête with Mary.


We’re kitchen people half our lives, our lives

              depend upon the work we do making

mundane arrangements of the commonplace

              to nourish soul and body; the things

of vita silente immutable, immortal, the art of

              artefacts telling others of how we lived.





The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognised.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601,

oil and tempera on canvas. London, The National Gallery.


What’s going on at Emmaus is mysterious, to say the least (so many incidents in the life of Jesus are). Two men invite a stranger into an inn to share supper with them; the stranger takes the bread, blesses it, ‘and brake, and gave to them’ (Luke 24:30); by this behaviour he suddenly turns himself into the host. At this point the men who, it turns out, are disciples, recognise him as the risen Christ; he then vanishes, as though he’d been a phantasm. Caravaggio doesn’t bother himself with the hocus pocus, instead depicting the super-dramatic recognition scene heightened by theatrical lighting – his famous chiaroscuro – but he adds an element, a still life, absent in other paintings of the scene, by Rembrandt, for example.  The basket of autumn fruits is rich in Christian symbolism: the Eucharistic grapes, the apple of Adam’s fall, and pomegranates, symbol of the Resurrection.


It [the basket] casts a metaphysical shadow in the form of a fish, the ancient symbol for Christ. These symbolic shadows reinforce the metaphysical nature of Caravaggios chiaroscuro, the juxtaposition of light and dark, recalling the Latin maxim lux umbra Dei, light is the shadow of God. 


The center foreground is occupied by a meticulously rendered still life of bread, cooked fowl, full glass vessels, and a precariously poised basket of overripe, late-summer fruits. The latter was considered by contemporaries [Giovanni Pietro Bellori, Lives of the Artists (Vite de’Pittori, Scultori et Architetti Moderni), 1672], as outrageous for a scene that was to have taken place just after the resurrection of Christ at Easter. Caravaggios unidealized description of objects based on direct observation had a profound impact on painting throughout Italy and Spain, especially in the fields of genre and still life.                                                                                                                      




Henri Strésor, 1613?-1679, The Oyster Eater, mid-17th century,

oil on canvas. London, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co. Ltd.



Eating Oysters on the Quay, Baltimore, West Cork


Briny jellies just boated in

              from beds in the bay

                           by oyster-farmer Dave,


prised open by digging twist

              of oyster knife: first, sip the sea

                           then suck down grey slither,


aftertaste of seaweeded shallows

              salty sprays whiffed and

                           respired, essence of


my ur-amphibious self

              in the primal soup twitching

                           my tail in satiety.


Henri Strésor’s depiction of the literal act of a haut-bourgeois boy eating oysters conveys the sumptuousness of the repast by the linen cloths over a crimson tablecloth, the tall pewter jug, the wine and other comestible still-life elements; the full-lipped and smartly dressed boy seems nonplussed, even a touch guilty, at being ‘discovered’ at his succulent little meal. The painting can be seen as a not-so-gentle dig at the indulgent lifestyle of the haute-bourgeoisie.  The metaphorical critique utilises the literal and traditional still-life set-up to convey a cultural and sociological attitude. The vanitas theme characteristic of earlier still life is not obviously apparent except by implication: that is, the transitory nature of the voluptuary’s lifestyle when set against the eternal verities and the certainty of mortality.




While favored by an art that celebrates the visual as such, they [the objects of still life] appeal to all the senses and especially to touch and taste.  They are the themes par excellence of an empirical standpoint wherein our knowledge of proximate objects, and especially of the instrumental, is the model or ground of all knowledge.  It is in this sense that the American philosopher, George H. Mead, has said: ‘The reality of what we see is what we can handle.’ 


Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1744 – 1818, Still Life with mackerel, glassware, bread, and lemons

on a table with a white cloth, 1787, oil on canvas. London, Sotheby’s

Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, 6 July 2011.



Anne, did you know that Inuit,

              who mainly eat oily fish,

              have fewer than average 

              heart attacks and strokes? 


Anne, did you know that oily fish

              such as mackerel are said to help

              against cardiovascular disease,

              prostate cancer, age-related

              vision loss and dementia?


Anne, did you know that the benefits of 

              eating at least two portions of fish

              a week, including one of oily fish,

              include keeping your blood pressure

              at a healthy level and improving blood lipids?


Anne, did you know that fatty fish

              contains high amounts

              of omega-3 fatty acids, especially

              eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA,

              and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA?


Anne, did you know that due to a high protein

              and fat content, mackerel has a significant

              amount of calories. One fillet –

              about 3 oz. cooked – contains 230 calories?

              Mackerel does not contain any carbohydrates.


Anne, did you know that one serving of mackerel

              contains 16 grams of fat – 4 grams of saturated fat,

              6 grams of monounsaturated fat, 4 grams

              of polyunsaturated fat, and that each serving

              also contains 2,991 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids?


Anne, did you know that mackerel contains high amounts of

              vitamin D – 101 percent of daily value;

              riboflavin – 21 percent of daily value;  

              niacin – 51 percent of daily value;

              vitamin B-6 – 22 percent of daily value;

              and vitamin B-12 – 163 percent of daily value?


Anne, your mackerel are fresh and plump,

              so of course you must have known

              that Autumn is the peak season

              for fishing mackerel, as this is when

              it has up to 30% fat. The extra fat

              enhances the flavour of the fish

              and ensures that it’s packed with

              protein, vitamin D and lots of healthy omega-3.


Anne Vallayer-Coster was the foremost 18th-century Painter in the Court of Marie-Antoinette. Denis Diderot noted that ‘if all new members of the Royal Academy made a showing like Mademoiselle Vallayer’s, and sustained the same high level of quality, the Salon would look very different!’

This is a remarkable still life by Vallayer-Coster, a work that she exhibited at the Salon of 1787, the year when it was painted, but which she kept thereafter, and which was in her collection when she died.  Although she painted still lifes of game throughout most of her career, and especially in 1786 and 1787, this is her only fish still life…. Mackerel are very rarely seen in still lifes by any artist, perhaps because they do not stay fresh for long, and what is remarkable about this picture, is that they are clearly fresh.  This should have been impossible in Paris before the advent of refrigeration and railways, and we have no record of a visit to the coast by the artist in 1787 or in any other year, so it is far from clear where she might have seen such fish.  



Manet attached great importance to still life, which he considered to be the ‘touchstone of the painter.’ Tired of history painting and of the ‘pretentious productions’ that weighed down contemporary artistic production, he confessed: ‘A painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds. You know, I would like to be the Saint Francis of still life.’


Édouard Manet, 1832-1883, A Bunch of Asparagus, 1880, oil on canvas.

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.


 Adriaen Coorte, 1685-1723, A Bundle of Asparagus, 1703, oil on canvas.

Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam.


Of asparagus: there’s green, there’s white, there’s purple; the latter, Violetto d’Albenga,  originally from the Albenga region, Italy, is a different variety and has 20% more sugar. Plant asparagus about 10 inches below the soil surface; all green and white spears are white until they thrust up in the spring from little mounds of earth, when photosynthesis turns them green.


Germans go mad for white asparagus (spargel); during the season many restaurants (Spargelhof) spring up in the asparagus-growing regions serving spargel menus, organising ‘spargel routes,’ and week-long festivals with music and spargel queens (Spargelkönigin). I have never seen an asparagus queen.


I am told that in northern France asparagus is served with hollandaise. In southern France asparagus is served with vinaigrette. My mother served asparagus with melted butter, chopped hardboiled eggs, and lemon, which is how she learned to do it in Holland. The other night my wife prepared a mean asparagus risotto, which we discovered in St. Ives at the Digey Food Room (get there early before they run out). 


In America most asparagus now comes from Peru, supplanting that grown mainly in California, Washington, and Michigan. The US pays Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus instead of coca in a doomed effort to control the export of cocaine. In England ‘sparrow grass’ is colloquial for ‘asparagus’ and was often grown in back gardens as a decorative plant; I know this because my wife, when she was a child, remembers that her mother grew it for its feathery ferns.


In Spain the so-called ‘asparagus bubble’ resulted in a price collapse. German asparagus is 40 percent more expensive than a year ago. In the US, Whole Foods put three asparagus stalks in a bottle of water, called it ‘Asparagus Water’ and sold it for $6 before they withdrew it in the face of widespread derision. Asparagus was once prized as having medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.  


As to urine’s distinctive smell after asparagus is eaten, Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1781 that ‘A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreeable Odour,’ whereas Proust said in 1913 that it had the effect of transforming his humble chamber pot into a ‘vase de parfum’. Various analyses of Asparagus’s chemical composition exist to explain the source of the odour: mercaptan (also found in rotten eggs, onions, and garlic), methanethiol, and asparagusic acid: When our bodies digest the vegetable, they break down this chemical into a group of related sulfur-containing compounds (including dimethyl sulfide, dimethyl disulfide, dimethyl sulfoxide and dimethyl sulfone). As with many other substances that include sulfur—such as garlic, skunk spray and odorized natural gas—these sulfur-containing molecules convey a powerful, typically unpleasant scent.    


Although still-life ensembles were an important element in many of the major paintings of the avant-garde artist Édouard Manet, his most sustained interest in the genre itself was from 1864 to 1865. Manet’s focus on still lifes coincided with the gradual re-acceptance of the genre during the nineteenth century, due in part to the growing middle class, whose tastes ran to intimate, moderately priced works. This painting, like many of Manet’s still-life compositions, recalls seventeenth-century Dutch models. The directness of execution, bold brushwork, and immediacy of vision displayed in the canvas, however, suggest why the public found Manet’s work so unorthodox and confrontational.                                                                            



*     Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint,

  1. 107.

†        New York, New York Review of Books, 1992.


[The following notes are numbered according to the number of each section; ‘Top’ and ‘Bottom’ refer to the commentaries at the head and foot of each section.]


1      Top: Davenport, op.cit. 5-6.

        Bottom: Geneviève Pierrat-Bonnefois, ‘Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and Funerary Beliefs,’ Stele:  princess Nefertiabet and her food. https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/stele-princessnefertiabet-and-her-food


2     Top (within quotation): Richard H. Wilkinson, ‘Introduction,’ Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London, Thames and Hudson, 1992.  10.

       Bottom: Charles K. Wilkinson, ‘Egyptian Wall Paintings: The Metropolitan Museum’s Collection of Facsimiles,’  https://metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3261250.pdf.bannered.pdf. 11. 


3     Top: The Object as Subject: Studies in the Interpretation of Still Life, ed. Ann W. Lowenthal. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996.  7.    


4     Top: Meyer Schapiro, ‘The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still-Life,’ 1968, in Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries. London, Chatto & Windus, 1978. 15.


7     Top: Giorgio de Chirico, ‘Sull’arte metafsica,’ in Scritti/1. Romanzi e scritti critici e teorici 1911-1945, ed. A. Cortellessa. Bompiani, Milan 2008, p. 289, as quoted in the press release for ‘Dime-Store Alchemy,’ exhibition 5 June– 17 August 2018, The Flag Art Foundation, New York.

       Bottom: William B. Jordan and Peter Cherry, Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya. London, National Gallery, 1995. 29.


9     Top: Mel Gooding, Art Rules! (And How to Break Them). London, Redstone Press, 2014.


10    Top: Charles Simic, op.cit. 

        Bottom 1: Charles Scribner, http://charlesscribner.com/caravaggio-lecture.html

       Bottom 2: Jennifer Meagher, ‘Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800,’ in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm (May 2009)


13    Bottom: Robert Vas Dias.


17    Top: Schapiro, op. cit. 19. [Quoting George H. Mead, The Philosophy of the Act, Chicago, 1938, 103 ff].

       Bottom: Sotheby’s catalogue note. www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2011/old-master-british-paintings-evening-l11033/lot.7.html


19   Top: Still Lifes by Manet,’ Musée d’Orsay. http://www.musee-http:/www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/archives/exhibitions-archives/article/manet-les-natures-mortes-4169.

       Bottom 1: Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian, May 3, 2013. 

      Bottom 2: Art Institute of Chicago, Entry, Essential Guide, Art Institute of Chicago, 2009,  212. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/44892https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-asparagus-makes-your-urine-smell-49961252/









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