Northern Baroque

A Meaty Post

I belong to a really fantastic book group. This month we have been reading The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. This book is really fascinating to me. It explores how meat consumption is related to patriarchal values; meat has longstanding associations with power, strength, virility, and wealth. Adams makes some interesting parallels with how the “masculine” consumption of meat is related to the sexual consumption and objectification of women, too. (You can get a sense of the parallels made between meat and women-as-meat in Adam’s slideshow.) There is a lot more to this book too, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in theory, literature, or the history of vegetarianism.

While reading this book, I continually thought of how meat is represented in art and visual culture. Although I have yet to read Adam’s other book, The Pornography of Meat, I feel like I’ve already come up with a substantial list. In many ways, the following representations of meat can also be related to patriarchy and power. I find it telling that the majority of the depictions of meat (that I have come across, at least) were created by men. And I also think it’s interesting that male artists like Rembrandt and Snyder (see below) decided to include women with the carcasses of dead animals. Are these artists merely referencing the fact that women have been delegated the responsibility to prepare meat (for male consumption)? I think we can we make deeper associations between what objects are construed for “the male gaze” in these images, especially from our modern-day perspective.

Rembrandt, "The Slaughtered Ox," 1655

Frans Snyder, "The Pantry," c. 1620

Along these lines of sexuality and male consumption, it is especially interesting to consider how Snyder depicted the maidservant with birds on a platter. The Dutch word “vogelen” (which means “to bird”) not only refers to fowl, but also to the sexual act. This painting, therefore, seems to reference worldly temptations or physical love.

Artists in the 20th century also were interested in exploring “meaty” subject matter. One work of art that immediately comes to mind is Francis Bacon’s Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (1954, see below). As an air raid warden in London during WWII, Bacon saw many of the horrors of war (a grisly enterprise which, I think, can be interpreted in many respects as a “masculine” endeavor). With two slabs of meat flanking the sides of a ghostly figure, Bacon explores parallels between meat and death.

Francis Bacon, "Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef," 1954

Other 20th century artists have made some interesting parallels between meat and male consumption, including the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim. Her work, The Governess (see below) depicts a pair of stilletto heels (objects which can signify female sexuality and arousal). The heels are tied together and decorated with paper crowns – the type of decoration sometimes found on a leg of lamb or chicken.

Meret Oppenheim, "My Governess," 1936

One of the most influential works of art involving meat is Carolee Schneemann’s performance Meat Joy (1964). This performance, which is very aggressive and controversial, involved men and women who danced, rolled on the floor, and played with a mixture of raw flesh (e.g. partially-plucked bloody chickens, raw fish, and raw sausages). The sexual connections between meat and “pleasures of the flesh” are quite clear in the performance.

I also think that it is unsurprising that audience members would squirm during Meat Joy. After all, Schneeman is including bloody and partially-plucked chickens, something that relates to what Carol Adams calls the absent-referent. When people consume animals today, the flesh is usually cooked and modified (and sometimes given a different name than the actual animal, like “veal” or “beef”) to help obscure the reality that a once-living creature has comprised the meal. So, in essence, animals are absentreferents on the dinner table. They are there, but they are also not there. Schneeman’s aggressive reference to flesh and blood in her “happenings” performance restores the absent-referent, which undoubtedly contributed to why viewers squirmed.

Many artists have been influenced by Carolee Schneeman. In fact, in 2008 exhibition titled Meat After Meat Joy brought together the works of various artists who have explored different meanings between meat and flesh. (You can read one blogger’s take on the exhibition here.) One of the videos on display in this exhibition was Zhang Huan’s performance, My New York (2002, see below).

Zhang Huan, "My New York," 2002. Video still from performance.

Many of Huan’s performance works involve endurance and masochism. In this particular performance, Huan walked through New York wearing a heavy suit with actual pieces of raw beef. Looking like a “beefed-up” body-builder (which alludes to masculinity and virility!), Huan would occasionally release doves during the performance.  It was interesting to interpret this performance in a political light, given the recent 9/11 attacks.  The small figure of the artist (within the powerful, beefy costume) was a reflection on how America (and New York itself) were vulnerable – as a nation and as a city.

And finally – I can’t finish this post without a pop culture reference. Lady Gaga has clad herself in “meaty clothes” a few times, once in a meat bikini on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan. Soon after, Lady Gaga also appeared in a “meat dress” at the 2010 Video Music Awards, complete with a steak on her head (see below).

Lady Gaga's "meat dress" at the VMA music awards, 2010

Although Lady Gaga said in an interview that her dress was a statement about fighting for rights (and asserted “I am not a piece of meat”), I can’t help but see how her dress just reinforces the associations with the masculine consumption of women (which other feminists, including Carol J. Adams, have observed). In this outfit, I think Lady Gaga is suggesting that she is available for consumption on two levels: to satiate sexual and physical hunger. And because of the associations with animals and meat, Lady Gaga seems to reinforce her sexuality by suggesting that she, too, is animalistic.

Any thoughts? Have I spoiled your appetite? (Sorry!) I’m curious to see what other depictions of meat are out there. Do you know of any more? I’m also reminded of Pieter Aertsen’s two works The Butcher’s Stall (1551) and Cook in Front of a Stove (1559). Another example is Van Gogh’s Still Life with Apples, Meat, and a Roll (1886).


The Turkey in Art

Happy Thanksgiving! This morning I’ve been wondering a little about the history of the turkey bird and its representation in art. I’ve learned a couple of interesting things, particularly from the book More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality by Karen Davis. This book not only discusses the history of the turkey in connection with the Thanksgiving holiday, but also a broader history (and consumption) of the bird. The turkey was first shipped to Europe from Mexico in the early 16th century. The turkey was then bred in Europe (Davis specifically mentions Renaissance England) and eventually the domesticated bird was brought back over to the Americas.1

I think it’s pretty safe to say, then, that the turkey was viewed by Europeans as an “exotic” bird, at least initially. As I’ve been looking at some representations of turkeys this morning (all by European artists), I can’t help but wonder which of this artists might have viewed the turkey in an “exoticized” light, and which (later) artists may have seen the turkey as an integrated part of European life.

Here are some of my favorite turkeys in art:

Giambologna, "Turkey," 1560s. Image courtesy of

Johann Joachim Kändler, Turkey model, c. 1733. Getty Museum. This turkey was one of eight models which were made by the Meissen manufactory. Kändler, a sculptor, was hired to help with the royal commission for large porcelain animals.

Pieter Claesz, "Still Life with Turkey-Pie," 1627

Metsu, "The Poultry Seller," 1662

Michiel van der Voort the Elder, detail of pulpit, 1713, Cathedral of Our Lady (O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal), Antwerp

The turkey depicted on this pulpit is found on the left side of the image, halfway up the staircase. Its distinct tail feathers are especially noticeable. In addition to the turkey, this pulpit shows a variety of other birds, including a parrot, heron, owl, and peacock. These birds are included to emphasize the natural world, which was thought by Saint Bernard to be a source of inspiration for the faithful. (I bet this is the only instance in which the turkey bird serves as a point of spiritual inspiration!) I’d love to research more about this pulpit (if anyone has any sources to recommend, please leave a comment!). So far I have only found a few sources online: the Web Gallery of Art and this online forum. You can see another detail image of the pulpit here.

Goya, "Plucked Turkey," 1812

Do you have any favorite depictions of turkeys? Happy Thanksgiving!

1 Karen Davis, “More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality” (Brooklyn, New York: Lantern Books, 2001), p. 54. Citation available online here. Davis’ book also goes into some depth discussing the difference between the wild turkey and domesticated turkey (see, for example, p. 79). She also mentions that the turkey was not a widespread part of Thanksgiving meals (outside of New England) until after 1800 (see p. 53).


Noble or Ignoble Savages?

Almost exactly five years ago, I gave my first research presentation in a graduate seminar. This seminar was dedicated to Northern Baroque art, and I chose to write on the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout. However, even though Eckhout is Dutch, I am mostly interested in the paintings he created while living in Brazil. The Dutch established a colony in Brazil (called “The New Netherlands”) in 1636, and the following year Eckhout traveled to the new colony as a commissioned artist. The governor-general of the colony, Johann Maurits, wanted Ekhout (and fellow artist Frans Post) to work as documentarists and paint the flora, fauna and indigenous people of the area. As part of the work, Eckhout painted eight portraits of the different indigenous people in the area, including Tupi Woman (c. 1641-44, shown right).

However, in my graduate presentation, I argued that even though Eckhout was hired as a “documentarist,” he doesn’t visually record the native people with a dispassionate eye of scientific observation. Nor do I think that these portraits were displayed as scientific images. Instead, I see these Brazilian portraits as a symbol of conquest. For one thing, Governor Maurits chose to display these portraits within his Vrijburg palace in Dutch Brazil. Maurits not only “owned” the subject matter within the painting, but the native people were therefore captured, defeated, and regulated to the walls of the palace.

Furthermore, Eckhout continually emphasizes the “Otherness” of the subjects of his Brazilian portraits. These portraits encourage the viewer to understand and define them on a basis of comparison against Western culture. As can be seen in his Tupi Woman, Eckhout is interested in emphasizing the cannibalism and nakedness of this native group. Ethnic stereotypes can be seen in the other portraits too. The Mameluke Woman (c. 1641-44, shown left) is depicted as a coquettish concubine in garb that is quite non-European (not only with the loose fitting dress, but because she apparently isn’t wearing a girdle or underclothing). Her raised dress and exposed leg suggest the sexual “profitability” of native people to the conquering Dutch. In fact, these mameluke women (a mixture of Indian and European blood) were stereotypically seen by the Dutch as being promiscuous and sexually available.

I’m not going to outline the rest of my argument here, since I assume people can catch the gist of my interpretation. The reason why I am writing this post, however, is to flesh out a thought in relation to the scale of these paintings. (For some unknown reason, this thought unexpectedly popped into my head as I was washing dishes last night.)

These portraits are created on a large scale (they are life size), which could imply that Eckhout was attempting to elevate and honor the Brazilian natives in his paintings. In fact, my professor suggested as much when she critiqued my graduate presentation. She also pointed out that the trees in the background form a makeshift “cloth of honor,” a visual tradition found in other Northern European portraits of nobility. Although I can see how one could interpret these aspects positively, I think that an opposite stance can be taken. I think that the grand scale and “cloth of honor” actually magnify the “Otherness” of the sitters. The Tupi woman is not only naked, but she’s really naked. She’s large-scale naked. And she doesn’t really get a “cloth” of honor, does she? Instead of luxurious red velvet, this woman is shown in front of a native tree which furnishes imposing, machete-like pods.1 I’m not sure if that is really ennobling. I think the uncomfortable juxtaposition of Western traditions (the grand scale painting with an impromptu “cloth of honor”) with non-Western subject matter makes the “Otherness” of the subjects even more apparent.

What do others (and Others!) think? Do you think that the grand scale and “cloth of honor” serve to ennoble these indigenous portrait sitters? Why or why not?

1 I should point out that trees previously had been used as natural “cloths of honor” in Northern Baroque art (consider Van Dyck’s portrait, Charles I at the Hunt (1635)). In the Charles I portrait, however, Van Dyck doesn’t try to draw much attention to the tree. Instead, the tree is mainly used as a framing device. I think this is different from Eckhout’s portraits, who takes pains to emphasize the non-Western nature of the plant life.

**When pulling together my previous research for this post, I also stumbled upon a book that was written in 2007 (one year after my graduate school presentation). I’m very curious to read Rebecca Parker Brienen’s book, Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter in Colonial Dutch Brazil. From what I can tell online, she and I are interested in the same topics and interpretations for this piece. Like Brienen, I think that Eckhout’s work is “informed by sexual as well as ethnic stereotypes.” We must have been researching these ideas around the same time. Fer Hegel’s Geist! You can see a preview of Brienen’s book here.


Diana of Ephesus: Keeping Abreast with Iconography

Some of my long-time readers will remember my previous post on Saint Lucy, whose iconography (or visual symbol) is a pair of eyeballs. I remember being struck by how St. Lucy’s iconography was so unusual (and kinda grotesque, in my opinion). Some comments on that previous post mentioned another unusual example of hagiographic iconography: Saint Agatha carries her breasts on a platter (see an example by Zurbaran here). Today, though, I remembered another female figure associated with kinda bizarre iconography: Diana of Ephesus. Although Diana (or “Artemis” to the ancient Greeks) isn’t a Catholic saint like Lucy and Agatha (she’s a fertility goddess from classical mythology), I would have to say that her iconography might be the most unusual of all. Take a look:

Artemis of Ephesus (known as the “Beautiful Artemis” statue), 2nd century CE Roman copy from Hadrian period (Ephesus Archaeological Museum, Turkey). Image available via Wikipedia and by QuartierLatin1948 on Flickr (through Creative Commons license).
Artemis of Ephesus (known as the “Great Artemis” statue), 1st century CE from Trajan period (Ephesus Archaeological Museum)

With breasts aplenty, it’s easy to tell that Diana of Ephesus was an ancient goddess of fertility, but her iconography might be little more complex than one would suppose! In 1979 a scholar name Gerard Seiterle pointed out that none of the supposed breasts of Diana/Artemis figurines have nipples. Seiterle argued that instead of breasts, Diana is laden will bull testes.1 This is an interesting argument for two reasons: 1) the bull was symbol of fertility in ancient times and 2) the altar at Ephesus would have been large enough to sacrifice a bull. Although Seiterle’s argument is not accepted by all scholars (I personally don’t feel quite convinced), it does add an interesting element to the discussion of Diana’s iconography, don’t you think?2

Even if early depictions of Diana do not include nipples on her breasts, I noticed that later depictions do include nipples:

Diana of Ephesus, detail from The Discovery of the Child Erichtonius by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615
Fountain of Diana of Ephesus, Villa d’Este, 16th century

Diana of Ephesus was a very popular goddess in ancient times (in fact, some readers may be interested to know that worship of Diana is mentioned in the Bible (see Acts 19:28 and Acts 19:35). Additionally, Diana’s temple at Ephesus (Temple of Artemis) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I get the sense, though, that she wasn’t as popular (and more specifically, her traditional iconography wasn’t as popular) in more recent artistic periods like the Renaissance (although some examples from later periods exist, as I’ve shown above).3 Perhaps Diana of Ephesus’ multi-breasted appearance was too far from the Renaissance standards of idealization?

If you can put forward a more unusual type of iconography than Diana of Ephesus, speak up!

*UPDATE (07/12): Upon visiting the Ephesus Archaeological Museum this past summer, I purchased a copy of the museum catalog. The museum wholly endorses Seiterle’s interpretation. This is what the catalog says, “The distinctive feature that all these three statues [the Great Artemis, the Beautiful Artemis, and the Little Artemis statuette] have in common in the presence of multiple pieces resembling eggs, hanging on the goddess, who was thought to have a connection with the way of worship, and initially, since these were believed to be breasts, the Artemis Ephesia was referred to as the Multi-breasted Artemis for years. Interpretations regarding them as bunches of grapes, dates or eggs, however, did not gain much credence.

In 1978, G. Seiterle came up with a new interpretation. He claimed that these pieces resembling eggs were bull testicles offered to the goddess in religious rituals, as a symbol of fertility. In order to prove his claim, he presented a reconstruction of the statue with testicles hung on it. The resulting sight was identical with the statue!

Excavations at around the altar of the temple also indicated that the bull had a great cultural impact for the Artemis cult. Thus the much-debated academic question was resolved.”4

1 See Gerard Seiterle, “Artemis: die Grosse Göttin von Ephesos” Antike Welt 10 (1979): 3-16. Seiterle is also mentioned (although his name is misspelled) in Vicki Goldberg, “In Search of Diana of Ephesus” in New York Times 21 August 1994 (citation available online here). I also found some scholars discussing Seiterle’s argument on this WikiTalk.

2 Wikipedia mentions here that Seiterle’s argument was “accepted in the 1980s by Walter Burkert and Brita Alroth, among others, criticised and rejected by Robert Fleischer, but widely popularized.” For an argument against Seiterle, see Fleischer, “Neues zur kleinasiatischen Kultstatue” Archäologischer Anzeiger 98 1983:81-93; Bammer 1990:153.

3 It’s interesting to note that a Renaissance humanist scholar might have been interested in Diana of Ephesus, though. It’s possible that Andrea Odoni is holding a statuette of Diana of Ephesus in his portrait (painted by Lorenzo Lotti, 1527). See portrait and discussion here.

4 Cengiz Topal et. al (Curators of the Ephesus Museum), Ephesus Museum Guide (Istanbul: BKG Publications, 2010), 120.


A Halloween Medusa

Since Halloween is here, I wanted to highlight a creepy painting to delight (and horrify!) my readers. If you think that Peter Paul Rubens only painted rosy-faced saints and voluptuous women, think again. A few weeks ago I came across Ruben’s painting Head of Medusa (c. 1617, shown above). This is the creepiest painting by Rubens that I have ever seen. Medusa’s dead eyes stare into the distance, while her snakelike hair continues to writhe and squirm. Eek!

Actually, I am reminded of one other Rubens painting which includes some similarly dark subject matter. Miracle of St. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1617, about the same time as the Medusa painting) also has wide-eyed demons writhing in the background. In fact, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (which owns both paintings) suggested that there are some stylistic comparisons between the demons and Medusa.

It is thought that when making the Head of Medusa, Rubens was influenced by Italian masters like Caravaggio (who had painted the same subject matter in 1598-99). I tend to agree with the argument that Rubens made this painting for a connoisseur (and perhaps collector) of both paintings and natural objects. Rubens certainly pays keen attention to the various types of snakes, bugs, and creepy-crawly things.

Do you know of any other “dark” works by Rubens? These are the only two of which I am aware, but there may be more out there.

Have a Happy Halloween! (If you haven’t submitted a post for the upcoming art history carnival, please send me one today!)


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.