And yet, a pair of thoughts leap out of “Art and Appetite”: The first is that the most extravagant dining in these paintings happens in still lifes and chilly rooms. The early 19th-century bowls of fruit and dessert plates painted by Raphaelle Peale and Charles Bird King — photo-realistic, cold and already nostalgic for the way a smart American should eat — become precursors to food porn and the idea that food itself can be fetishized. “Game,” a grisly, disturbing 1860 painting from Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, shows a mound of dead deer, fowl, rabbit and goose. Part of a sub-genre of art popular in 19th-century upper-class dining rooms, it reveals how, even 150 years ago, when the country was more rural, we longed to congratulate ourselves on understanding the pedigree and source of our food while, in reality, progressively, we didn't want to know.
Indeed, the other thing you notice about “Art and Appetite” is this: Crowds of museumgoers congregate around the less opulent images. To some extent, this has more to do with the blockbuster nature of those paintings than not wanting to wear a nice shirt to dinner: Of course, there are crowds around Rockwell's “Freedom From Want,” with its iconic (and no less food-porny) depiction of a New England Thanksgiving Day family dinner, and Edward Hopper's noirish “Nighthawks,” one of the jewels of the Art Institute's holdings.
But in the context of a show so stuffed with fine dining, these works feel radical.
“Freedom From Want” seems to actually glow on the Art Institute wall, whatever kitsch it may contain tamped down now by a yearning for that long communal table, loving family and contentment. Similarly, though “Nighthawks” is widely read as a commentary on alienation — “patrons refrain from any sense of togetherness,” the wall note says — its diner looks like a great place to eat. Simply, it looks comfortable. If the place were real — and its backdrop is as generic as a movie set — you'd have to book a table three weeks out.
That is aspirational dining in 2013, eating that evokes feelings of reassurance, sentiment, memory.
Tellingly, the show does not move beyond the mid-'70s: Curator Judith Barter, who organized “Art and Appetite,” said in an email that she wanted the exhibit to come full circle, to “return to local ingredients and the attention to real cooking” that mark latter pieces. And to an extent, the Smart Museum of Art's 2012 exhibit, “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art,” somewhat covered the last few decades nicely.
Besides, what is there to say about our proclivities for dining in 2013 that Willard Metcalf's “The Ten Cent Breakfast,” from 1887, doesn't already cover? It shows four shadowy figures seated around the table of a small inn. One man is reading a newspaper. Another has a soft glow on his face; he could be reading his 19th-century iPhone. Meanwhile, the other two lounge, sipping coffee, chewing up their morning in a public place.
It's a comforting, familiar image, and I believe today it's called Starbucks.
“Art and Appetite” is on display through Jan. 27 at The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600 or artic.edu.