Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus (1697), Rijksmuseum
How is your growing season going? After the recent warm spell, our vegetable garden is coming along very nicely now: in addition to reliable potatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli, leeks and onions, this year we’re trying some experimental beans, and just one variety of tomato. This may sound odd, but genuinely – one of the things I most enjoy about growing vegetables is looking at them. The soft grey-greens and purples of sprouting brassicas are just really beautiful, and who could argue with a broadbean’s undeniably fresh, pale green? The daily work of caring for my soon-to-be-planted seedlings often finds me reflecting on the aesthetics of these completely ordinary things. Like many everyday activities, the labour involved in raising plants provides me with welcome opportunities to see light, texture and colour a bit differently.
I have similar thoughts about aesthetics, focused attention, and the work of vegetables, when looking at one of my favourite still life paintings – Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus (1697). Produced in the seventeenth-century’s last years, at the heel end of the Netherlands’ still-life vogue, Coorte’s work was unusual in the particular way it paid such close attention to a single subject: a bound sheaf of white asparagus on a stark, stone plinth lit by glancing, directional light.
Nicolaes van Gelder Still Life (1664), Rijksmuseum
Earlier still lives, such as those of Nicolaes van Gelder featured many different kinds of fruit and vegetables alongside flowers, fish and shellfish, expensive household textiles, glass and tableware in more generalised displays of private luxury and abundance. Other Dutch still-life painters, meanwhile, liked to use the genre as an obvious way to showboat their own skill. In Adriaen van Utrecht's Banquet Still Life, for example, the artist seems to be shouting loudly at the viewer – will you just look at how well I can paint this giant lobster?! A pie! Some lemon peel! A monkey! A dog’s pelt and the skin beneath?!
Adriaen van Utrecht, Banquet Still Life (1644) Rijksmuseum
There’s no doubt that in his Still Life with Asparagus Coorte is showing us what he can do too, but his approach is rather different. Out of the dark space of the painting, Coorte makes his asparagus all illumination.
It’s far too easy, too conventional I think, to use the word “humble” in association with vegetables. Sometimes vegetables are humble, but sometimes they are luxury comestibles, and that seems to me to be very much the case here. I don’t think that Coorte is in any way elevating the “humble” asparagus in this painting. Rather, he’s celebrating and focusing our attention on a delicious delicacy whose appearance was also curious, beautiful and strange.
And just like the gorgeous tulips for which Netherlands was then famed, Coorte’s white asparagus are luxury commodities that have been developed through the careful work of human cultivation. White asparagus do not grow “naturally” but are rather etiolated, earthed up, forced in dark spaces kept from light. Like other still life artists before him, then, Coorte certainly highlights the distinctive aesthetics of a curious object. But in the very quietness and restraint of this extraordinary image, he’s not celebrating nature but rather drawing our attention to the creative work of human artifice. Lit from within, glowing white and mauve and green, his neatly bound asparagus focus our eye closely on the human labour that’s involved in producing tasty food for the table, and upon his own labour too: on the brushstrokes of an artist whose job it is to force these things out into the light.