By Poleena Vassiliev
The painting, Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, by Haley Hasler is a twenty-first century allegory depicting a woman who addresses the viewer, offering a teacup filled with pastries. The theme of this painting is the objectification of the woman whose transformation in to a brunch conflates the traditions of genre, allegorical, and still life painting, while borrowing heavily from historical conventions, particularly those of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. In borrowing from historical conventions Hasler emphasizes the relevance of themes of gender, domesticity, and carnal appetites not only historically but in modernity as well.
The principal figure in Portrait as a Sunday Brunch is a woman whose body and multiple patterned skirts, suggestive of table cloths, transition into a still life scene of a brunch of sumptuous orderliness, that suggests at once ideas of plenty, fecundity, and sensual pleasure. The fall of the woman’s skirts suggest the form of a table underneath but there is not clear definition of where the woman ends and the perceived table begins, reinforcing the idea that the woman is actually a Sunday brunch and calling into question the existence of the woman, the banquet of food, and the domestic space of the home as separate entities. To the right of the woman, a child plays the recorder and looks sideways out of the painting at the place in front of the mother, where the viewer stands.
Portrait as a Sunday Brunch is not merely a portrait of any woman as a Sunday brunch, but a self-portrait of the artist. Hasler appears in her own paintings as the subject of an allegory in which she assumes the roles of inanimate objects. In Portrait as a Topiary (Fig. 1.), for instance, Hasler paints herself as statuesque, covered with plant life and birds, a man and children surrounding her admiring the plant life, as though she is a topiary sculpture in a garden. Similarly, in Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, she merges with the brunch in a manner which makes it difficult to tell where the woman’s role as real person and as a mere object of admiration or consumption begin.
In Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, as well as in her other works, Hasler borrows from the traditions of seventeenth-century painting, particularly seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Hasler uses the conventions of allegory, which is a historical idea in itself.[i] Classically, allegory is an artistic mode in which people and objects are used to symbolize a metaphoric idea or theme. In Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, the allegory deals with themes of domesticity and womanhood, specifically with the objectification of women, as the woman becomes a part of her home. In the seventeenth-century, the dress chosen for portrait sitting was vital, as it was thought to be the clothing above all else that inserted the figure into the allegory created. Seventeenth-century art theory dictated that when sitting for allegorical paintings people were costumed in clothing reflective of their stations and roles in life and which conveyed symbolic meanings.[ii] In Sunday Brunch, Hasler has dressed herself in a colorful frock which seamlessly becomes the brunch. The bright colors and patterns that appear in the fabrics of the skirts are echoed in the food, making it difficult to tell where the table ends and she begins.
Hasler becomes the feast. She extends her arm to offer the viewer confections from a teacup. Since she is the brunch, she offers not only the teacup, but also herself to the viewer, which calls to mind gender associations with the roles of women as homemakers and objects of desire. The gender implications of Portrait as a Sunday Brunch are furthered by the child that is closest to the foreground, who plays the recorder and looks sideways, just past the mother to the person in the place of the viewer. The recorder, perhaps coincidentally, was a symbol for “base, worldly pleasure” prior to and continuing into the seventeenth century.[iii] The child playing for the mother suggests the child is presenting her for the pleasure of the person standing in the viewer’s position.
Portrait as a Sunday Brunch is not only an allegory but also a genre painting, a scene of everyday life, and it recalls seventeenth century Dutch genre painting. In the Dutch genre paintings from which Haley Hasler draws women were depicted “alternately as succubi or as sentinels of domestic virtues.”[iv] The Dutch seventeenth century painter Jan Steen painted women as succubi, smiling coquettishly at the viewer while at the center of mayhem in paintings like Beware of Luxury (Fig. 2). Artists like Vermeer portrayed women as delicate and mannerly (Fig. 3) and Pieter de Hooch often painted mothers with children (Fig. 4). Portrait of a Sunday Brunch, while similar compositionally to these Dutch genre scenes, falls into neither one of these two categories. The use of doorways to draw the eye into the background, common in Dutch genre scenes is present in Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, and the central female smiles somewhat coquettishly, while still being depicted as mother and domestic object.
The composition of the feast on Hasler’s dress also reflects the influence of seventeenth century Dutch painting, particularly still lifes. The flowers in the lower right hand side of the composition, on the corner of the table, are peonies. Peonies were used frequently in Dutch still lifes, as in Roses and Peaches by William van Aelst (Fig. 5). Cut flowers decaying in Dutch painting were symbols of vanitas, or the transitory nature of life. Flowers that bloom at different times of the year symbolized the passing of time and are perhaps alluded to in Portrait as a Sunday Brunch in the flowered patterns that occur throughout the table cloths and skirts that make up the woman’s clothing.[v] The abundance spread of food and drink in Hasler’s painting recalls the similar composition of a still life by Adrian van Utrecht, for instance (Fig. 6). Van Utrecht’s work depicts a sumptuous and delicate display of food that indicates both abundance and a casual attitude toward that abundance, suggested by the way in which delicacies are piled precariously, in a manner that anticipates Portrait as a Sunday Brunch.
In Portrait as a Sunday Brunch, Hasler borrows extensively from the traditions of seventeenth century Dutch painting, conflating the ideas of allegory, genre, and still life painting just as she conflates the ideas of woman, food, and home. Portrait as a Sunday Brunch depicts woman as domestic object, as its subject literally transforms into a Sunday brunch. Hasler’s allusions to seventeenth century painting infuse her picture with symbolic ideas and themes associated with allegory, genre, and still life. Her painting, though perhaps more ambiguous than its historical counterparts, suggests that the themes of women and domesticity are still as relevant today as they were in the seventeenth century.
[i] Matilde Battistini, “Symbols and Allegories in Art,” Getty Publications (2005).
[ii] Emilie E. S. Gordenker, “The Rhetoric of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Portraiture,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 57, Place and Culture in Northern Art (1999), pp. 87-104.
[iii] Mary Rasmussen and Friedrich von Huene, “Some Recorders in 17th-Century Dutch Paintings,” Early Music, Vol. 10, No. 1, The Recorder: Past and Present (Jan., 1982), pp. 30-35.
[iv] Simon Schama, “Wives and Wantons: Versions of Womanhood in 17th Century Dutch Art,” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Women in Art (Apr., 1980), pp. 5-13.
[v] Dorothy Mahon, “A New Look at a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Winter, 1993-1994), pp. 32-37.