by Joan Forster
I’ve always loved the still lives of the artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). They bring home the simple pleasures of living, and often, a deep yearning for a lost way of life. This thought came to mind over and over again as I wended my way through the various galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a major retrospective of the artist’s work – more than 100 oil paintings and some 70 watercolors and drawings from public and private collections throughout the world – is on display until Sept. 1, 1996. Those who are drawn to Cezanne’s oeuvres have their favorites. Mine are his still lifes. The surroundings may be rustic in many of these paintings, but the fruits spring forth in a riot of colors and sit with elegance, refinement and pride on a flowing napkin gracefully falling over a table’s side, such as in “The Kitchen Table” (1888-90). Or, in “Bread and Eggs” (1865), the long loaf and staff of life takes its place proudly and nobly, causing the viewer to feel almost humble before it.
Cezanne was born and raised in Aix-en-Provence, and later depicted the fruits and vegetables of that lush region in his paintings, revealing in the finished work a profound respect for his subjects. Contemplating these paintings, it is no wonder that food and art can be discussed with the same feelings, as it often was in the time of the Impressionists.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw rapid changes in the French life style. Cafes were rapidly proliferating in Paris, as well as in the suburbs. Waterside dining became very popular. There was a heightened awareness of culinary pleasures and French society greeted it with enthusiasm. The artists not only sought to capture the social changes taking place but were caught up in it as well. They haunted the cafes, where they ate, drank, carried on heated debates about art and found models. And, as Alexandra Leaf points out in her lively book on the subject of art and food, “The Impressionist Table” – Recipes & Gastronomy of 19th century France” (Publ. Rizzoli), Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec were avid cooks. An anecdote, among many in her fascinating book, is worth noting: Lautrec “maintained that to properly contemplate a painting, it was necessary to have a drink in hand. Lautrec also stated that only wine was the proper accompaniment to a meal; water, he claimed, ruined the palate. So adamant was he in his belief that Lautrec often placed carafes of water containing live goldfish on the table.” Of course, to some of us die-hard water drinkers today, what’s a few goldfish? Ms. Leaf’s highly entertaining book is filled with such anecdotes and is well worth having – for the menus of the period alone! And as far as menus are concerned, the presence of Cezanne in Philadelphia has inspired more than a few in restaurants around the City. At the Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel, Philadelphia, 1 Logan Square (215) 963-1500, Executive Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix invited Rene Berges, Chef of Relais Sainte-Victoire in Aix-en-Provence, to help launch the celebration. Working with Chef Berges recipes, both work together in developing imaginative and colorful Provencal dishes.
Fountain’s menu will change daily while the exhibition is in town, and on June 11th the lunch menu featured items such as, sauteed Maine halibut fillet, with Provencale tomato compote, mild garlic fumet. For dinner menu that day one could find roasted Virginian squab with saffron potatoes, star anise and coriander sauce. The hotel’s Courtyard Cafe included a “Cezannewich”, a rustic, Provencal, vegetarian sandwich with anchovies and black olives. “We’re just having a lot of fun with the menus, just really enjoying ourselves,” said Antoine Chahwan, the hotel’s director of food & beverages. The dinner prix fixe is $67.00 or $97.00 with featured wines by the glass. Lunch is $27.50. The ambience at this elegant and charming hotel is just the right spot to contemplate Cezanne and his work.
One wonders how Cezanne, who stayed close to his studio in his native Aix-en-Provence toward the end of his life, would have reacted to this blockbuster shown in his honor? Something to contemplate.
Tickets for the Cezanne exhibition ($12.50) may be purchased by calling (215) 235-SHOW from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Advance tickets are strongly recommended. The Museum is offering many programs in conjunction with the exhibition and has created a children’s guide to the exhibit as well. Local buses in Philadelphia are free for seniors and number 76 at 11th and Market Streets, which stops in front of the Museum, is half price. Watch for a one-hour PBS documentary entitled “CEZANNE,” which will air nationally on July 10.