What the different foods in the Museum of Fine Arts' still lifes really mean

Floris Claesz. van Dyck’s Still Life With Fruit and Olives, oil on oak panel, is among the pieces on display. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Floris Claesz. van Dyck’s Still Life With Fruit and Olives, oil on oak panel, is among the pieces on display. Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Published June 20, 2019

The Museum of Fine Arts' exhibition "A Feast for the Eyes: European Masterpieces From the Grasset Collection" is also a feast for the senses.

The collection of works by Old Masters, displayed on duck blue, silk damask walls, is surrounded by velvet neoclassical furniture you're welcome to sink into. A lush, living floral arrangement adds subtle fragrance to rooms where painted flowers hang.

But this exhibition also piques a more unusual sense than most would think: hunger. Filled with luminous paintings of banquet and pantry scenes bearing sumptuous fruits, wheels of cheese, plump loaves of breads and shiny olives, it's hard to not feel like a nosh after you've seen the exhibit.

The paintings are from the private collection of the Grasset family of Madrid. The exhibition includes 40 works by Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish Old Masters — artists working in Europe before 1800. The works were made during the Baroque period, which followed the Renaissance in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since international trade was at a peak during that time, and Holland was at the center of it, people loved to eat imported foods, just like we do now. The banquet scenes and pantry scenes in the exhibition provide mouth-watering history lessons.

"Trade revolutionized cooking because you have all these new things coming in, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and so many things that are commonplace now," curator Stanton Thomas explained. "It really revolutionized the way people were eating."

The foods also reflect religious ideals of the zeitgeist, and those that go back to ancient times.

Dutch artist Floris Claesz. van Dyck's Still Life With Fruit and Olives (c. 1600) is a cornucopia of symbolism. The banquet scene depicts the table of someone who would have been upper class, exemplified with imported olives, lemons and oranges from somewhere in the Mediterranean. Wheels of cheese were probably local and, according to Thomas, were a form of gold for the Dutch.

The darker cheese on top would have been flavored with cumin, as they were importing spices as well. The strawberries in the bowl in the center of the table would not have been imported because they would never last for three months on a trade ship.

Although the works are secular and have to do with daily life, because many of the Old Masters were Protestant, they relied on biblical symbolism attached to fruit to send moralizing messages. Red, sweet fruits, like strawberries, along with cherries and currants, symbolize the sweetness of eternal life.

Likewise, oranges are associated with purity and chastity because of their white blossoms. Lemons stand for virtue. They're all associated with either Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary.

But another religious lesson is underlying in Still Life With Fruit and Olives.

The coiled rind of the half-eaten apple and cracked walnuts and hazelnuts represent the passage of time.

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This brings up the notion of impermanence and the concept that while things are good now, they can easily change. The idea is to enjoy it while you can, but not so much that you commit the sin of gluttony.

German artist Peter Binoit's two paintings, both titled Still Life With Mouse and Songbirds (c. 1620), reveal more history and symbolism. The pantry scenes show a bounty, and yes, the dead songbirds are on the menu. It was very common for people to eat songbirds, and, according to Thomas, there are some places where people still eat lark. In both paintings, a mouse nibbles on white Italian candies called confetti di Pistoia. To make them, sugar is boiled down and nuts, cinnamon and citron are added. The confections reflect trade with the New World, as that's where sugar came from, mostly through the Caribbean, and, unfortunately, through slave trade.

The little mouse is cute, but he's actually the symbol of destruction, another cautionary message about gluttony. The presence of bread and grapes also symbolizes Christ.

Thomas said that these paintings would have been highly collected at the time by anyone who was prosperous to show off their wealth and taste. From the looks of it, their taste was good.


"A Feast for the Eyes: European Masterpieces From the Grasset Collection" remains on display through Sept. 2. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-2667. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours until 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. $20, $15 seniors, students, military, Florida educators, $10 children 7-17, free for children 6 and younger and members; $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays.


You don't have to go far from the museum to find a meal straight out of the paintings in "A Feast for the Eyes." The following are all in walking distance.

Go to the museum's MFA Cafe and feast on the fruit and nut salad, with mixed greens, goat cheese, mixed berries, orange segments, toasted almonds, candied walnuts and a honey lavender vinaigrette. Pair it with a glass of bubbly prosecco. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

225 Beach Drive NE

(727) 822-1032

At what they call "supper" (4 to 10 p.m.), Stillwaters Tavern offers a charcuterie plate with country ham, Berkshire prosciutto, house-made pickles and grilled bread. They have happy hour until 7 p.m. with draft beers for $4.50 to $6.50. 224 Beach Drive NE

(727) 350-1019

The chef's cheese assortment at Cassis sounds rich, with honeycomb, fig jam, balsamic strawberry, fresh fruit, candied almonds, red wine gelee and house-made breads. It boasts having the "ultimate happy hour" from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and

4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday. Glasses of their crisp white wine are only $2.50. 170 Beach Drive NE

(727) 827-2927

Annata Wine Bar lets you curate your own charcuterie board with exotic meats and imported cheeses, like sriracha lomo and Moliterno al Tartufo (sheep) from Italy, as well as pate. Munch on roasted herb almonds and marinated olives from the antipasti menu and finish with the house olive oil cake with pistachio creme, ricotta and honey. Wash it all down with a wine from their extensive list, perhaps the Jean-Charles Boissot "No. 69" pinot noir from Burgundy, France.

4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 300 Beach Drive NE

(727) 851-9582

It will be tough to choose between Birch & Vine's charcuterie board, with Spanish chorizo, house pimiento cheese and chocolate honeycomb, or the cheese slate, with Irish porter, Gorgonzola dolce and whipped honey. But since it's a day of feasts, indulge in both. Then head upstairs to the Canopy and enjoy the skyline with a beer, perhaps a Belgian Stella Artois or an Italian Peroni. Visit the website for hours. 340 Beach Drive NE

(727) 896-1080