MONET: Artists & Their Kitchens

The summer of 1997, I earned a spot in an Art Theory class taught in south of France. I fell in love three times that summer — and no, not with French boys leering at our glaringly white-bikini-lined breasts that yelled “American!” as far as boobs could see.  But far more seriously: True Love affairs, the kind that never leave you:

  • First with Matisse.
  • Then Monet.
  • And with the Cote d’Azur.

Deep blue waters, even bluer skies. Wild lavender under nose. Soft green olive branches rustled overhead. Countless stone alleyways to walk, art to see, fascinating lectures about galleries and the act of Art Display — something as a young artist I hadn’t yet thought to even consider. That was also the summer I met espresso, chilled Rose, crisp green Niçoise salads, briny olives, and plates of cheap meats coaxed into something heavenly after long afternoons simmering in light bodied, red wine, sautéed ramps, and garlic. We ate well once a day and sometimes, I snuck off from the other girls and ate alone. With a book. Or just the view… Trying something new or revisiting a glistening strawberry tart I just couldn’t forget. This was before the popular food revolution back home in America; many flavors were simply revelations. I called home on pay-phones and carried money under my shirt. I tried to miss life back in college. But summer was THAT delicious. It’s no wonder my love affair with French food interlaced with my youthful discovery of Fauves & Impressionism –to capture how a single, real moment FEELS and painting that which your heart wishes only to remember. Much like flavor…

Water Lilies Teal.

Water Lilies Teal.

Oscar Claude Monet is arguably king Impressionist and, it turns out, painter of good looking food. Cookbooks, essays, lectures, and biographies have detailed Monet’s love for food and for family.  But I was surprised to learn that he struggled to earn this luxury. For decades. That his young adult life was frought with hunger, bills, sadness, disdainful family, and creditors. But that after his early 40s, and the untimely death of his young wife, Monet bravely began again. Enjoying the culinary, domestic, and artistic revelry to which he had so rightly earned.

Claude Monet

Jar of Peaches, Claude Monet

Born November 14, 1840 in Paris to a wealthy grocer father and a vibrant singer mother, “Oscar” Claude Monet lived a pleasant, rather strict Catholic childhood first in Paris and later in seaside Normandy. Then, as a young teen, Monet decided to become an Artist. His parents discouraged his painting but did allow him to attend art school in Le Havre — learning Plein Aire painting, or painting of natural light in fresh air. When his mother died suddenly in 1857, Monet’s father gave his teenage son an ultimatum: stop painting NOW and join the family grocery business. Monet refused. And his father cut him off entirely, forcing 16 years old “Claude” to take refuge with his widowed Aunt Sophie Lecadre. Though she provided him only with food and housing, Monet began to build a local reputation for sketching striking charcoal portraits of neighbors and beachgoers.

Earning enough to take him to Paris, Monet skipped the Louvre (& museums in general) — where he saw fellow students only madly copying the Masters — and opted instead to paint what he “saw out windows” with the meager art supplies he had brought with him. Starting in 1862, Monet enrolled in Art School under Charles Gleyre and met lifetime friends Pierre August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Edouard Manet… and then? There was his model Camille Doncieux whom he met first when she posed for his “Camille, La Femme a la Robe Verte”.  She was soon very much pregnant and the couple moved into a cold, one bedroom apartment.  With no kitchen.

Friends and painters Monet, Renoir, Sisley, etc gathered their meager reserves and held picnics in the public parks to eat better together than alone.

Friendly painters Monet, Renoir, Sisley, et al gathered their meager pantry reserves and held picnics in public parks to eat better together than alone. Camille glows center. Detail of Monet’s “The Picnic” (1865-1866)

Now this was a heady time, pregnant or not. And I am skipping/simplifying much for the sake of getting to the food… But while Monet and friends are famous today, back then? They were literally “starving artists” pushing back against the establishment to carve their own branch of modernism: the Impressionists. Much of their meetings taking place in cheap Paris “cafe’s where the cutlery was chained to the table” and over inexpensive picnics in public parks with cheap wine, stale bread and cheese.  Monet’s father and Aunt hated all of it — the squalor, the art, the pregnant girlfriend. And Monet concealed much of his life but just could not stay away. From his art, Camille, and baby boy; returning to Paris and marrying Camille in June 1870. Their life did not improve but they were at least together — moving often to avoid creditors, losing commissioned paintings to debt collection. Still, Monet painted some of the most touching, peaceful scenes of his young family and friends sharing bucolic meals together often in dappled sunlight.

One of Monet's many food paintings. Even though Wine was not quite his thing? Food definitely was.

One of Monet’s many food paintings. Even though Wine was not quite his thing? Food definitely was.

After their second son, Michael, was born, Camille’s health deteriorated further and Monet drew dangerously close to committing suicide under the mounting pressure of poverty. But his love for Camille and their sons sustained him. Still “beautiful Camille” died from cancer in August 1879 at age 32 in the house of wealthy patron and friend, Ernest Hoschede.  Monet was alone again. Destitute, heart broken, and with two young sons to raise. Monet had painted 31 paintings featuring Camille in scenes of domestic, well-fed harmony… when reality was one of cold, hunger, debt… and Love.

Camille in Japanese Costume (Claude Monet, 1876)

Camille in Japanese Costume (Claude Monet, 1876)

Monet stays on to live with the wealthy Hoschede family (and eats well for the first time in decades). Monet was still recovering from the death of his wife when Ernest suddenly went bankrupt, abandons his wife Alice and their six children (6!) and flees for Belgium 1881. Never to return.

Widower Monet, jilted Madame Alice Hoschede and their total combined EIGHT children platonically regroup and collectively move to Poissy where after time, a slow love affair begins to flame.  Then burn. And, finally, finally, FINALLY, Monet begins to reap the financial reward of his growing fame. 

Perhaps once of the most famous paintings in the entire world: Impressions of Sunrise by Claude Monet 1872

Perhaps once of the most famous paintings in the entire world: Impressions of Sunrise by Claude Monet 1872

Monet and Alice hated life in Poissy but during a train ride, discovered nearby Giverny. Promptly purchasing acreage with a pond and moving into a small home with all eight children and a Cook.  Garden design and home renovations began at once with Monet’s eye focused on natural light for interiors and thick, lush floral beauty outside complete with now famous water-lily gardens and his burnt orange, Japanese bridge.  Monet chose happy colors of lemon yellow for the dining room, many blues and white tile for their kitchen, and a soft pink exterior created by hand mixing crushed bricks with white plaster. Monet treated the design and coloring of their home — especially their dining spaces — with sincere artistic affection.

Branch of Lemons, Monet 1883

Branch of Lemons, Monet 1883

Alice finally marries Monet upon the death of her long estranged husband in 1892. And it is during this second marriage, Monet achieves the culinary bliss denied him during his first chapter in adult life. At Giverny, Monet grew happy “to eat as much as four men at every meal” and deeply relished their domestic refuge.  Happily, his art, regular visitors, and large, loud, lovingly blended family rotated around mealtimes. Literally.  It is during this period that Monet paints pictures of food and tablescapes with a sumptuous, new richness certainly enjoyed in real time.

Alice & Claude Monet's restored kitchen in Giverny.

Alice & Claude Monet’s kitchen in Giverny. Note the Briffaut stove and blue cupboards with brass handles.

Jane Grigson in Food with the Famous (my new favorite, out of print book) describes a day in the life of Monet and his food: “Monet got up at four or five in the morning, ate a huge breakfast and set out to paint. He came back to the house at eleven o’clock, ready for lunch promptly at midday. This was the time for greeting friends…and distinguished visitors, more and more of them as the years went by. After the meal, which might take place on the wooden terrace in front of the house if the weather was right, everyone would walk around the garden, and over to the water-lilies… Six gardeners were employed…He demanded a delicate fullness of color and delight in the garden as well as on the table.”

Monet carefully chose the most jubilant, buoyant colors in their garden to bring indoors. This is their Dining Room.

Monet carefully chose the most jubilant, buoyant colors in their garden to bring indoors. This is their Dining Room.

No matter the meal, Monet preferred fine, freshly grown food in what we understand today as “farm-to-table.” Breakfast followed a bit of routine however for Monet: fresh goat cheese, sliced cold meats or smoked salmon, warm sausages, omelettes spiced with fresh herbs, toast, marmalade and hot tea. Monet ate at 5:00am before sunrise, honoring Plein Aire painting beliefs that dawn and dusk offered the finest natural light. Lunch to be taken at midday because light then was flat, dull, and not romantic in the least.

Dinner after dusk was often a lively, happy affair with family and many formerly “starving” Artist friends dropping in to enjoy Giverny’s bounty and their ever-growing success.  Relishing fine, light bodied wines (like Sancerre and reds from the Loire) over lingering meals including foie gras, truffles, roasted poultry with fresh herbs, sautéed mushrooms, green salads just garden picked, local cheeses, roasted beef, garlic vinaigrettes, and heavily peppered olive oils for dipping fresh bread. Monet loved homemade charcuterie, rillettes, and pate before lunch or dinner — all spiced with “quatres-éspices” (fine ground pepper or all-spice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.)  Freshly caught fish was a big favorite and served with beurre blanc. Monet also regularly requested sides of veal, risottos, and lots of fowl such as duck. After a second trip to Algiers with Renoir, Monet directed his gardeners to add “new” Mediterranean herbs and vegetables to their garden to liven up traditional Normandy fare.

Monet’s household menus reflected each season. Not because of an epicurean preference but because in late 1800s – early 1900s this was the norm. Monet did stipulate foods should be fresh and as fine as possible… Accented with hints of luxury.  Common Asparagus was to be trimmed, bound with twine, and steamed upright with baby potato halves tucked into the water below. Served together garnished with bits of chopped boiled egg, vinaigrette and minced parsley. (I want to make this next week). Asparagus holds a special place on French tables, rich or poor, as a flavorful vegetable and easy to acquire when in season at local markets or picked roadside where growing wild. And was a vegetable Monet enjoyed even when impoverished throughout his 20s and 30s.

Another fine side dish Monet carried forward to his bountiful table at Giverny is “Haricots au Vin de Chanturgues”: red beans simmered barely submerged in a light, bulk red wine.  At Giverny, however, this simple dish bumped up the opulence by using Gamays from the Chanturgues region along with sliced bacon, creamed butter, chopped parsley, and a beurre blanc for finishing this once rustic staple.

 Fun fact? Monet enjoyed sketching a particularly beautiful food for later painting, making his family wait like so many today on social media. Especially baked goods, like these Galettes.

Fun fact? Monet enjoyed sketching particularly beautiful food for later paintings, sometimes making his family wait like many food lovers today on social media. Especially baked goods, like these Galettes.

Monet’s most treasured friendships continued to thrive, rooted deeply in their past, shared experiences as struggling, hungry artists.  Regular friends at table often included Pissarro, Rodin, Renoir, Cezanne, John Singer Sergeant, Sisley, and Mary Cassatt mingling with his ever growing brood of family.  With such an incredible guest list, I was surprised to read that Art was RARELY discussed during mealtime; Food being the main topic.  Monet believed that verbally discussing and enjoying the food in front of them was an important mental and sensory exercise.  And compliment to Cook. To not do so, he considered “barbaric.” Food played a significant, daily role in Monet’s art and inspiration — both as struggling artist and later, as grateful, blended family patriarch happy to eat well and reap rewards earned from decades of hungry effort.

When I started this process last month, I wanted to see if there was any connection between creative types and what they chose to cook and eat. Plus how they chose to dine.  Or if there even was any connection?  And I’ve found that there really can be direct correlation between an Artist’s state of mind and their table. I’m not sure who is next but it could be Thomas Jefferson, Georgia O’Keefe or Jane Austen.  Either way, I hope you stay with me.

Happy eating everyone! And stay tuned on FB or Instagram as I cook through recipes from Frida’s Kitchen (last month) and Monet (November, this month.)

Abigail

 

FRIDA: Artists & Their Kitchens

Welcome to “Creatives & Their Kitchens”: a new series!

Cooking and Art are two sides to the same coin. (In my book.) Taking raw ingredients to create something nourishing body or soul. Sometimes both. I’m not talking artsy culinary “perfect” but rather, what we as cooks (artists) choose to EAT and make for ourselves (families and friends) in the privacy of our own homes.

Cloaked from public eye, singular behaviors become just that: personal and private. Intimate. Being a food lover, and an artist, I began to wonder how some of my favorite artists and writers, leaders and visionaries approached their own kitchens and daily meals. Or did they even think of it? As I mulled this over making carbonara, I realized I did approach my cooking similarly to my easel: with an impressionistic vision in mind but open to seasonal influences and available ingredients/colors.  But how did the great creatives approach their FOOD? Did they cook for themselves? Or hire cooks? How did they choose to dine? Any rituals or routines? Did they eat in their socks and read the paper? Or have long meals filled with conversation? And did their favorite foods reflect style of Art? And recipes! Do any survive?

Nerding out completely, I started ordering out-of-print books on food history and reading up online. And it turns out, many artists did in fact have specific opinions about food, eating routines and favorite recipes. Like you’d imagine Julia Child whipped up fancy fare for guests but she did not.  Instead, serving guests bowls of cheddar flavored Goldfish crackers. (Isn’t that a hoot?) I kept going, reading about Georgia O’Keefe, Monet, Jane Austen among others. Amazon had quite the month with my credit card. And the first artist I want to tell you about is Frida Kahlo.

Frida Khalo captured later in her life before she died at age 47.

Frida Khalo captured later in her life.

Born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon on July 6, 1907, “Frida Kahlo” was a Mexican painter known particularly for self-portraits and surrealist, Feminist expression of the female experience, indigenous folk art, and nationalistic rhetoric.  Leading Surrealist Andre Breton beautifully described her work as a “ribbon around a bomb.” Painting herself came naturally as the horrific traffic accident she survived as a teenager  (after surviving Polio) in her native Mexico City left life long health effects that often isolated Frida from her family and community. Kahlo’s volatile marriage to the hugely famous Diego Rivera brought her to the international stage but her sheer talent, unusual beauty, and original painting kept her there. And in some ways, eclipsed those accolades of her husband. In droves.

Self Portrait With Thorn Necklace & Mockingbird (1940)

Self Portrait With Thorn Necklace & Mockingbird (1940)

When not traveling for mural commissions (Diego) and shows (both souses and later. Frida), Diego Rivera and Frida lived a colorfully domestic life — when happy — with very definite opinions about food and how they ate. Preferring traditional indigenous Mexican dishes eaten together as part of a kind of elevated artistic experience rooted in the “working class.”  When relished, Frida purposefully created “small still lifes” for Diego to visually enjoy during their noon meal (Comida). Her tablescapes celebrated native Mexican vibrancy, flavors, and culture with colorful pre-Colonial styled ceramics, linens, small flower arrangements, 10-12 plates of foods… Even inviting household pets to the table “for movement.”  Their parrot –who only said “No me pasa la cruda” (“I can’t get past this hangover”) — pecked at fruits while their little monkeys jumped between their shoulders.

I love these details. And I like to think of her as a happy spouse. From the beginning, eating “food of the people” was part of Diego’s daily creative process. And for Frida too.  During these times, Frida departed from her excruciating self-portraits to include still-lifes and vibrant domestic interiors drawn increasingly from Mexican folk art.  How fascinating that an artist so revered for her unflinching take on the female experience (plus ardent Communist and Feminist), loved sweetly enough to endeavor domestic beauty. And harmony.

So many images to choose from. Volatile a marriage, yes. But great love and collaboration as well.

So many images to choose from. Volatile a marriage, yes. But great love and collaboration as well.

Recipes kept to pre-Colonial, pre-Hispanic foods rooted in the deep culinary traditions of indigenous Mexico. Dishes like Zucchini blossom soup, cucumber salads, pork stews, and chicken Escabeche.  Diego’s favorite plate of all was Mole, a recipe Frida learned to make from Lupe, Diego’s second wife (and her predecessor) who lived upstairs in their first home as married couple. Actually, Lupe owned the building and lived on the top floor with her two daughters while Frida and Diego, lived ground floor. Despite the unconventional housing arrangement, Frida and Lupe grew to be good friends and Lupe taught Frida many recipes Diego preferred.  Frida later expanded her cooking repertoire when the couple moved to La Casa Azul and began cooking from her mother’s The New Mexican Cook (published first in 1888).  Ironically, the Rivera’s did not see a conflict between their domestic help and their politics, employing cooks who could authentically create indigenous dishes.

Often entertaining many guests at once, meal time gatherings at the Rivera’s were noted not just for good food, strident leftist discussions, music, and copious libation but also for eating in the manner of the “poor working class.”  Tortillas in lieu of forks and knives.  Food cooked in the old style over wood flame and no modern stove or equipment like a refrigerator. Should Diego be painting a mural and unable to make the noon meal, Frida took him his lunch in a turquoise pewter pail just as “campesino women” took lunch to their husbands in the fields. Frida’s pail for Diego likely included a protein, rice and beans and topped always with warm tortillas, fresh fruit, sweet breads, and flowers artistically arranged.

Biographer Hayden Herrera describes the couples’ typical eating day (during happy times): “breakfast would be leisurely with Frida or an assistant reading the newspaper to Diego, who did not want to tax his eyes. Afterward, Frida would either paint or go to the market and Diego would go off to work. If he’d been drawing in the marketplace — where he went often to observe the poor who were his most important subjects — he would come home for comida… bringing an ingredient for the cook to incorporate.”

Food and the rituals of Eating were important to the couple. Part of their marital rhythms.  Frida relished being the central woman in Diego’s life and they divided kitchen, household responsibilities according to traditional Mexican roles.  And for Frida, “domestic tasks took on the nature of an art project…Setting the table was a ritual.. [And] the food itself was treasured for it’s beauty as well as for it’s flavors. After her self portraits, most of Frida’s paintings her still-life works of flowers, food, and domestic interiors. Pivotal paintings still celebrated for her surreal depictions of Mexican national and indigenous pride and unflinching imagery of female experience and form.

Viva la Vida (1954)

Viva la Vida (1954)

Frida’s most personal kitchen was her last (and first kitchen) in her childhood home “La Casa Azul”. Frida continued to live (and eat) here throughout her life — with or without Diego. With or without her parents. Her sisters. Friends. She had no children. Despite their numerous attempts…miscarriages…abortions. Today, it is part of the Frida Khalo Museum and still decorated with her brightly colored yellow and cobalt blue tile, sugar skulls, fresh flowers, and her traditional ceramic cookware, much of which was no longer made even by 1940s.  Both the names of Frida and Diego decorate one wall and the recipe for Diego’s favorite Mole is enshrined outside on a museum plaque.

I had trouble finding recipes and kitchen notes about her cooking habits after she and Diego divorced.  Frida took great pride in feeding Diego, fussing over him and even bathing him.  I appreciate Frida embracing her inner Sapphos yet Wifely Warrior while navigating the early 20th century world to which she was born.  Reveling as Artist, Beauty, Wife, Survivor, Daughter / Sister, and Cook… All the while on deep pain medication of some kind. Always… Perhaps though, when Diego was gone, Frida turned to Art more fully as her emotional outlet (her marriage) gave way to sharing her creative wellspring between Diego and Easel. image-1-2-png