With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many of us have food on the brain — which puts us in the company of classic painters throughout history who have taken tablescapes as their subjects. But artists know that every light casts a shadow, so for every beautiful still life of a sumptuous feast, there is also a tableau that takes on the crumby, messy aftermath of a big meal. So let’s push back from the table, unbutton our waistbands, and take a look at the art of leftovers.

Arguably, there is no after-meal painting more famous than Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (1495–1498). Though the focus of the piece has more to do with the betrayal of Christ than the tablescape itself, it is a timely holiday reminder that festive gatherings always run the risk of ending in tragedy.

Leonardo da Vinci, “The Last Supper” (1495–1498) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Dutch vanitas painting, which predominated in the Baroque period (1600–1750), interprets the broader concept of memento mori (“remember you must die”) through visual reminders of decay, dissolution, and death. In some works, this concept was embodied with the inclusions of a literal skull; in others, morality plays were set out through a series of symbols referencing Christian values. In the context of still life paintings, which often pictured meals or floral arrangements, the vanitas tradition transforms the scene from before to after, picturing the disheveled tablescape with as much reverence and detail as the image of its pre-meal glory.

A particular master of the genre was Willem Claesz Heda, who repeatedly returned to the subject of mussed tablecloths and overturned glasses, variously pictured with abandoned oysters or the accoutrement of tobacco consumption.

Willem Claesz Heda, “Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco” (1633) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although “Dessert Still Life” by Georg Flegel is actually an elemental representation of Catholicism — from the woody texture of the walnut standing for the cross; wine and grapes for Holy Communion; a white flower representing Jesus; and coins that references Judas’s betrayal of him for silver — one could also say it is of leftovers. Because for me, once a rodent is on the table, the meal is over.

George Flegel, “Dessert Still Life” (first half of 17th century) (via Wikimedia Commons)

A specific subset of works known as ontbijtjes (“little breakfast pieces”) has its own sumptuous results. Flemish artist Clara Peeters, one of the few women working professionally in this time period, is known for helping the genre take off. In this vein, Gerrit van Vucht’s “Breakfast-piece with a Ham” paints a picture of breakfast as a long, indulgent endeavor during which you might consume the entire leg of an animal.

Moving forward in time, we find a relatable scene by Gustave Courbet, “After Dinner at Ornans” (1848–1849). The meal is done, everyone is ready to take a nap, but that ponytail man Aunt Margaret is dating has pulled out the acoustic guitar and effectively taken the whole dinner party hostage. All you can do is pick at your plate and wait it out.

Gustave Courbet, “After Dinner at Ornans” (1848–1849) (via Wikimedia Commons)

But the past is not the only place we find ample interest in the aftermath of great meals. Many a contemporary artist has turned their gaze or their lens upon leftovers. Photographer Laura Letinsky’s series of “after dinner” images miss the life of the party, but seek to capture its remains.

Laura Letinsky, “Untitled 1,” from the series The Dog and the Wolf (© Laura Letinsky; courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York)

Photographer Roe Ethridge also sometimes takes on the dark side of meals, with his trademark style that implements commercial photography effects while presenting askew imagery that subtly undermines the generally glossy presentation. Chanel Necklace for Gentlewoman” (2014) is a conscious and evocative send-up of the Dutch veritas tradition, with a majestically splayed brie and brand logo added for extra effect. And for all its uncomfortably perfect polish, a perhaps distinctly American undercurrent of shame defines his Thanksgiving 1984 series: “In 1984 my aunt, uncle, and cousins came to Atlanta for Thanksgiving,” Ethridge explained in an interview. “I was fifteen, and they brought my twenty-year-old cousin, whom I suddenly developed a crush on. That’s the picture that I need to recreate, I thought, that forbidden desire. It was embarrassing.”

Happy Thanksgiving from Roe Ethridge (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

Speaking of food going bad, photographer Klaus Pichler’s One Third puts a United Nations statistic about food waste into candid relief, with a series of food tableaux going beautiful, floridly rotten against a high-contrast black background that evokes the chiaroscuro of Old Masters paintings.

But when it comes to the beauty of rotting food, perhaps no one has gilded the lily more than Kathleen Ryan, whose large-scale sculptures of rotting fruit utilize thousands of gemstones for each eye-catching moment.

Kathleen Ryan, “Bad Satsuma” (2018) and “Black Lemon, 2019” (2019) (images courtesy Josh Lilley Gallery)

From the dark ages to Black Friday, artists throughout history have produced leftovers that anyone would be pleased to take home — a sentiment which cannot be said about Aunt Susan’s green bean casserole. Bon appetit!

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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