04 February 2009


An epiphany is a rare event, by which I mean, a moment of fundamental insight that instantly and permanently changes your perception of life and the world. But I had one such in Nov. 2006 when I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., as I was in town for a conference. I've been to the National Gallery a number of times, and each visit seems more rich and meaningful than the last. But this time I was struck by two paintings in particular, not so much for their artistic merit, but for an insight into the human experience that they communicated to me.

I will not say too much about them. You can click on the images below and get a fuller description. The first is a Dutch still life by Willem Claesz Heda of a table laden with food, a common painting subject at the time and his specialty. I was first drawn to the realism. Then I thought, "You know, that kind of looks tasty." Then I began to think more deeply about food as an object of art, its inherent aestheticism, its timeless and universal desirability, and its centrality in our hierarchy of pleasures.

Willem Claesz Heda, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635)

The second painting is another Dutch work, this time by Jan Steen. It shows a "scene of daily life," perhaps a wedding feast, and while the dancing couple may be at physical center, food obviously plays a central role in this celebration. With this painting I reflected on how timelessly central food is to most all of our festive occasions, and how communal eating (feasting!) is the quintessential festive act.

Jan Steen, The Dancing Couple (1663)

These two paintings worked together with a really great meal there (at Ten Pehn, fantastic) to convince me that, while food is a quotidian necessity, great food should be a bigger part of my life. And thus was a passion born.

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