The recent show in Boston of exquisite work by Spanish artist Antonio Lopez Garcia included a painting called “La Cena” (“The Dinner”), 1971-80. The subject of the dinner table has a long history in painting going back to Pompeii and probably Greece. Seeing Lopez Garcia’s painting of the family meal made me want to re-examine three of my favorite paintings of this subject: one by Monet and two by Caravaggio.
Monet’s “The Luncheon” of 1868 is closest in time to Lopez Garcia’s. They both depict a meal that includes eggs, bread, water, and wine. Historians quibble about the meaning of Monet’s figures, but the still-life of food speaks for itself: bourgeois plenitude. The painting was done at a time in Monet’s life when he aspired to, but had not yet achieved, the material comfort he enjoyed as a child.
Comparison between Caravaggio’s two versions of “Supper at Emmaus” is particularly moving. In the brief span of five years, his vision of Christ’s resurrection supper was transformed from noble elegance to frugal repast. The first version done in 1601 depicts the meal as bountiful; sumptuous food befitting a king; gold, ceramic, and crystal dishes in sparkling light; and the ego of Caravaggio’s superlative technique on full display. In contrast, the second version of 1606 instead presents with spare naturalism Christ’s identification with the ragged and suffering poor. The contrast between the two paintings presages Caravaggio’s own abject decline that he experienced in the next and final four years of his brief life.
ABOVE: Copy of Lopez’s La Cena, 1971-80, gouache, 6.5 x 9 in (16.5 x 22.86 cm), 8/13/2008
Copy of Monet’s Luncheon, 1868, detail, gouache, 6.5 x 9 in (16.5 x 22.86 cm), 7/11/2008
Copy of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1601, detail, gouache, 6.5 x 9 in (16.5 x 22.86 cm), 7/12/2008
Copy of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1606, detail, gouache, 6.5 x 9 in (16.5 x 22.86 cm), 7/12/2008
Copy of Lopez’s La cena, 1971-80, gouache, 6.5 x 9 in (16.5 x 22.86 cm), 8/14/2008