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Wine: a part of family life for every class

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Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) 


Private collection




This painting by Caillebotte invites the viewer into the intimacy of a large Parisian family and plunges him into the new mode of urban living which emerged at the start of the 20th century. This family intimacy extends to the table. In the dining room of their private mansion on Rue de Mirosmesnil, the painter’s mother, Madame Martial Caillebotte, and his brother René eat a meal served by their butler. Madame Caillebotte is shown wearing mourning for her husband, who has been dead for less than two years. In this intelligent interplay of light and shadow, the three characters are backlit by the window, their faces hardly emerging from the shadows while the crystal glasses shimmer on the table. 

These form part of a Harcourt table service, created by the manufacturers Baccarat in 1841 and still sold (with more than 10,000 sales annually) as a luxury product today. The carafes seem to project light into the gloomy dining room in the strange new Paris of Haussman. The characters seem indifferent to each other and deeply bored, if not profoundly lonely. Naturally, the wine is served in a carafe – it would not have been presented otherwise in a bourgeois household. However, there is a bottle near one of the fruit bowls, to the right of Madame Caillebotte. The bottle probably contains a ‘home-made’ muscat, doubtless the gift of a close friend, which could be enjoyed without ceremony. Muscat wine was the standard accompaniment to fruit or dessert at the time, even if it is rarely drunk as such today.

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1. From the 17th century to the first half of the 20th, wine was a key part of family meals. It certainly is in this peasants’ supper. Velázquez often painted this type of genre scene, readily introducing relatable, everyday objects into his compositions. In this painting (there is another version in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg), the human figures are scarcely more important than the still-life.  Superb craftsmanship is shown in the painting of the full, parted lips of the younger man, the eyes of the old man listening to the story and his slight movement towards the glass and the expression on the face of the woman pouring out the wine, concentrating lest a single drop be spilled. Nevertheless it is possible to argue that the most striking part of the composition is the still-life arranged on the white tablecloth. Still though these objects are, they have a genuine pictorial quality, a vigor which is akin to life itself. The Peasants at the Table is one of Velázquez's finest early pieces of the type known in Spain as a "bodegón", a combination of conversation piece and still-life (Source: Web Gallery of Art).


2. The Le Nain brothers’ Peasants Meal plunges us into the rural world. In the background, the four-poster bed (on the right) and the glazed window (in the centre), evoke the interior of a relatively well-to-do 17th-century country family. The austere depiction brings to mind the virtues of simplicity: the meal is elevated by the symbolic presence of bread and wine, subtle reminders of the importance of the sacraments in daily life. As it is the day of a (religious) festival, a fiddler has been invited into the scene. The Grand Siècle was the ‘century of saints’. Several everyday objects stand out – a stoneware pot, a pewter bowl, a knife... In contrast with these mundane items, the stemmed wine glasses seem to have been brought out for this special occasion.


4. The Dutch painter Pieter De Hooch specialized in siècle d’or interiors and portrayals of women. Artistic depictions of peaceful domestic spaces were popular at the time: the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) had just come to an end and many dreamt of peace and tranquility. By painting women at work, Pieter De Hooch idealised Dutch home life, simple virtues, efficient housekeeping and the education of children. With Woman with a Child in a Pantry, the viewer is led into a bourgeois house in Delft. The mother has just come up from the cellar and holds out a jug of wine to her child. The stoneware wine jug was made in Germany; Delft earthenware was still a novelty and bottles were not widely used before the 18th century.


6. Eighty years later on her return from the market, a servant known as The Provider (La Pourvoyeuse) unpacks the day’s provisions. She rests her arm, tired from the weight of the large loaves, on the sideboard. She is serious, her expression placid; her seemingly slow movements are typical of Le Nain characters, even if the composition harks back to certain structures of the Dutch School.  The décor is said by some to be that of Chardin’s own apartment in Rue du Four, Paris. Tenderly, he portrays the tired seriousness of the servant, not forgetting to lend equal importance to the loaves of bread, humble kitchen objects and bottles.

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1. Although Impressionism didn’t officially exist until 1874, six years after this painting, Claude Monet gives us a taste of the movement with The Luncheon (Le Déjeuner), a portrait of his own family. At this time, the Monets had just left the Dumonts’ guest house at Bennecourt, three kilometers from Giverny. Monet was crippled by debt and was not able to pay the guest house. This minor work has the merit of showing us with great realism the daily table service. An unpretentious wine is shown as part of the everyday setting of the table.


4. John Singer Sargent opts for a complete change of scene with A Dinner Table at Night (The Glass of Port). We are in Sussex, at the home of the Vickers family, part of an English steelworking dynasty. For the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie, it was customary to drink port at the end of a meal. The gentry tended to drink it from a carafe, regardless of its age, as they did with ‘claret’ - dark red Bordeaux wine from the best crus, characterized by a rather sharp taste due to its long fermentation process. As in France, in England a crystal carafe was long seen as a social marker; it always had its place on the table, even for family meals (See Luncheon by Gustave Caillebotte, above).


5. In Signac’s The Dining Room, Opus 152 (La Salle à manger, Opus 152), we penetrate once more into the intimacy of the artist’s family with, around the table, his mother in mourning for her husband (who died when Signac was very young) and, in the foreground, his grandfather, in whose house his mother lives. He is a former trader who has made savings; he clearly likes to give himself airs of respectability, but sometimes strikes the wrong note. If the carafe dominates the table, his cigar imposes itself on the scene, much like his calotte skullcap. If his manners are poor, is he just a social climber?


6.  Pablo Picasso’s Soler Family is assembled for a picnic after the hunt. A young and penniless Picasso asked his tailor to give him new suits in exchange for paintings. In 1901, the artist, still waiting for fame and fortune, had already swapped two drawings with the tailor, but this family portrait is very large. Picasso never made the Solers pose in his studio, choosing instead to work from a studio photograph of the family and their dog. As in other picnic scenes, wine plays a central part in the meal.


7. Édouard Vuillard lived with his mother until her death 35 years later. This scene probably unfolded in her house, the end of the meal shown dragging on around an almost-bare table. The family chat and discuss shared memories. The soft and intimate atmosphere is helped by the moderate consumption of wine. This state could last for several hours.


12. Matisse’s Red Room (Desserte rouge) takes us to the Antipodes. Once more we find the all-important carafe – this time there is more than one of them. Like the servant, these are part of the decor – yet another indicator of a certain social class, whose members take their coffee in the salon or smoking room while the staff clear the dining-room table.


13. Auguste Chabaud’s Family's Portrait (Portrait de famille) shows a scene in much the same vein as The Family after the Meal by Vuillard.

23. Bonnard aime contrarier les lois de la couleur-lumière, utilisant le bleu pour la lumière et le tond chaud pour l'ombre.


24. Beyond these formal displays, Gen Paul takes inspiration from daily life in la Butte Montmartre, Paris, where he had grown up and lived. A man and a woman are seated at a table, spread out before them the signs of a good lunch: full and emptied glasses, patterned plates, cutlery, cigarette packets. All these colorful touches convey an undeniable joie de vivre, in which the wine has doubtless played a part (Source: La Gazette Drouot, 15 décembre 2017).


Cals Le Dejeuner a Honflur, 1875 Orsay alt.jpg

Luncheon at Honfleur, by Adolphe Félix Cals (1875, Musée d’Orsay) is set on the cliffs, at the Saint-Siméon farmhouse, in the shade of the apple trees. Bed and board could be had here for a very reasonable price. Guests were served home-brewed cider (instead of wine, much more common in this type of establishment – see Monet’s The Luncheon).


The Saint-Siméon farmhouse was known to all Honfleur fishermen. Honfleur-born “king of skies” Eugène Boudin, who lived in Le Havre, often visited. He brought with him many Parisian and Norman painters (Courbet, Sisley, Jongkind), all attracted by the view on the Seine bay, the incomparable softness of the light… and the cheap prices! Monet wrote to Bazille: “every day, I discover things of even greater beauty; it’s enough to drive one mad! I want to do everything… My head might burst! I am greatly pleased with my stay here, although my studies are nothing like I wanted… We are admirably well, here at Saint-Siméon!”


The Muses’ companion, wine intersects all the arts, whether literature, music, decorative or fine arts. In any case, wine is an irreplaceable witness of our social and cultural history. Although The Virtual Wine Museum is mainly concerned with painting at present, some examples drawn from other artistic formats permit us to illustrate this reality, to ‘bear witness’ to it. Some examples of work on the same theme as this painting gallery: a 17th-century Silver Carafe; an 18th-century Wine Glass; the photograph of a vineyard worker, Chabrot' in Ardèche; and an etching on zinc in black on ivory laid paper The Frugal Meal, from The Saltimbanques by Picasso (1904, Art Institute of Chicago).


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