Artibus et Historiae no. 15 (VIII)

1987, ISSN 0391-9064

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LIANA DE GIROLAMI CHENEY - The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism

The 17th-century development by Dutch genre painters of the oyster meal theme is easily divided into two time periods: the introduction of the theme of consuming oysters in merry company scenes from 1610-35, and the oyster meal often depicted in more intimate settings from 1660-80. There is a hiatus from 1635-60 in which few examples of the oyster meal appear. In both the early and the later periods there is a compositional change, dividing each period into two phases. Paintings of the early period are commonly festive, the important change occurring the shift of locale from outdoors to indoors; whereas, paintings of the later period are nearly all indoors - in domestic interiors - the change lying in the kind of occasion portrayed, which shifts from feast to tryst. The role of the oyster in later painting changed gradually, but distinctly. Always a symbol of the sense of taste - and a delicacy at that - its erotic significance was steadily accentuated. This development accrued to the shift from banquet scenes with oysters as an incidental feature, to lovers scenes, where the oyster meal is the principal theme. The opportunity to moralize varied accordingly with the same changes.

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