Broad palate


Do artists eat the food they paint? Maybe not literally. The grapes in the average still life must be half-rotten by the time the painter has captured their glassy bloom. Claude Monet once did a picture of two mullet, pinkly glistening on a white cloth. The fish in the picture are firm and slippy, straight from the sea. One longs to frizzle them in a pan of olive oil and gobble them down. But you can just imagine how whiffy the actual mullet must have been once their pretty scales were all painted and they remained, sweating, in the hot studio.

Then again, food paintings are not a bad indication of an artist's general partialities. Cezanne, whose name is for ever associated with apples and pears, was indeed fond of the lustrous fruit of his native Provence. Nor is it hard to recognise Renoir's personal gluttony in his pictures of fleshy women eating sauced-up Parisian brasserie food. As for the greatest impressionist gourmand of them all, Claude Monet - the subject of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy (see page 36) - his paintings of mealtimes reveal an ebullient appetite for the niceties of cuisine bourgeoise.

Monet's appetite was gargantuan; it was said he ate enough for four. He found the penury of his early years in Paris in the 1860s - living on lentils and beans in a bedsit shared with Renoir - a real torment. He aspired to the Norman good life of the cooking he had been raised on, ripe with sweet butter and cream, delectable seafood and soft, supple fruits.

During his early career, Monet often depicted such delights on canvas. Nature morte was a good bet for a penniless artist: cheap to paint, needing no expensive model, and easy to sell. But, paradoxically, Monet couldn't afford to eat much of what he painted. There is a strong aspirational element in his work at this time. See, for example, his Dejeuner sur l'Herbe of 1866, inspired by Manet's work of the same title. Monet's well-dressed picnickers lounge before a linen tablecloth laid with burnished roast chicken, good bread, a pile of inviting fruits and an elaborate raised pie.

In the last phase of his long life, Monet was able to eat like this for real. His second wife, Alice, was a brilliant cook who made him treats such as vert vert, a green cake flavoured with pistachio and coloured with spinach. At their house in Giverny, Normandy, Monet ate all the lobster and truffles his heart desired. He and Alice also grew fine vegetables. Yet, as the current exhibition demonstrates, old Monet's cataract-impaired eyes were fixed mainly on the non-edible portion of the garden.

The Monet who painted these 20th-century, light-dappled landscapes is a man whose hunger is sated at last. He can afford all the sole a la normande his heart desires; so he no longer needs to paint it.

Monet's Sole a la normande
Preheat the oven to 220oC. For each person, put one skinned Dover sole on a piece of oiled foil. Cover with a knob of Normandy butter, a little lemon juice, dry cider and salt. Parcel the foil up tightly. Cook for 17 minutes or until just done. Meanwhile, reduce some fish stock with more cider. Whisk in unsalted butter, bit by bit, then some cream. Finish with the juices from the sole, a handful of prawns and some chopped dill. Check seasoning and serve. Precede with watercress soup, follow with a bitter salad, Camembert and a tarte tatin. Then calvados. Pretend you are eating this in a tranquil garden of mauve pointillist trees and the odd water lily.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage