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On Obsonia- Or Quoting the Quotidian

Updated: Jul 3

A reflection on genre painting from antiquity to today- Brian Keeler


Who would think that the art of the humble, commonplace or everyday would be railed against? Well, that was the case in ancient Rome, specifically for Pliny the Elder, ( AD, 23/24 to 79.). Pliny was a philosopher, an admiral in the Roman Navy, a naturalist and an army commander as well, while serving under the Emperor Vespassian.



Above- "Interior- Exterior- Philadelphia, PA" - a 24" x 40" oil on canvas by the author depicting a scene of the everyday.


My interest here is in Pliny's penchant for the aesthetic and commentaries on art in Ancient Rome. Pliny becomes relevant to artists of our era as he specifically focuses on the genre art of his day and regards it as being "mean" or debased and unworthy of artists' efforts. It is suprising to me that there was, in fact, an art of the everyday that was prevalent enough to form an official backlash against. Put in simple terms, Pliny was an advocate of art that aspired to the noble themes of mythic art. Who can argue with that? There can be little fault found in art that elevates the human experience and furthers understanding.


But for every thesis there is an antithesis, and that is found by Pliny in artists of first century AD in places like Pompeii, where Pliny died tragically while trying to save those caught in the ashes of Mount Vesuvias in AD 79. He picks a bone with those artsts who portrayed the quotidian subjects, such as still lifes, and he singles out painters who depicted barber shop interiors. And again, who would have thought there were "proto-Ashcan School" artists finding the muse in the quiet moments of everyday back in ancient Rome. We have come to think the Dutch Golden Age paintings, like Vermeer's "Milkmaid' that were breaking new ground and trail-blazing by renouncing of mythic, historic or religious themes. But lo and behold, here in ancient Rome they were doing just that- 1500 years before Vermeer put the brush to a panel.


The term, used by Pliny was "obsonia" which literally means food items for payment. It has further application as it is a Greek term for payment to athletes. And here, the term obsonia is applied to art of the kitchen and the everyday. A related term, is that of "zenia" which refers to the guest/host relationship and obligations. This would figure in the portrayals of dining in ancient Roman art. But more directly they apply in an episode from Homer's Odyssey, where the protagonist, Ulysses expects to be treated well by Polyphemus and zenia is evoked to no avail. Polyphemus doesn't give a damn about zenia and proceeds to bash the brains out of Ulysses' men and devour them. In a word, zenia is civility or benevolence. The concept of zenia pervades Homer's narrative, for example where Eummaeus treats the disguised Ulysses to kindness, even though he does not recognize his disguised former master when he finally returns to Ithaca.





Would Pliny be aghast at the art of Vermeer or would Petronius disdain the work of George Luks? It is hard to fathom such anachronistic separations of centuries, or for that matter, what future preferences of art will bring. Perhaps like a pendulum, we'll return to Pliny's ideas again someday. But more accurately, and less polemically, the two art preferences have coincided, albeit fractiously at times for centuries. Just think of Bouguereau and his portrayal of the ancient myth of Orestes as opposed to the everyday scenes of Monet and the other impressionists. Both of these art forms were being created simultaneously in late 19th century France.


The relevance to me here is that I too would come under Pliny's dictum against artist of the everyday. For I have found inspiration in the humble and non-picturesque. Specifcally, the painting shown here of interior of a beauty parlor in Philadelpia that I painted several years ago. I was intrigued by the geometry of the interior and the interplay of angles created by the mirrors and the reflected light on the windows. The simultaneous street scene with pedestrians along with waiting customers also appealed to me- hence the title, "Interior/Exterior, Philadelphia, PA.


In another example, shown below, I painted the interior of a salon in a Wallmart where women were paying for a special "blue light" treatment for their finger nails. What the blue light box did, I was not sure, but the process seemed bizarre to me and the posters on the walls of brilliantly painted finger nails on a hand holding and icecream cone struck me as oddly erotic, surreal and ridiculous. The customers with hands in the blue box were facing out toward the hallway so all passersby could look on as the women sat passively while receiving their blueing.




Above- A watercolor by the author- in keeping with the theme of this essay- which is the art of the everyday. In this case, another example that would irrate Pliny, a painting of a beauty parlor of sorts- a boutique in a mall for manicures and nail coloring. This watercolor titeled, "House of Blue Hands,"


I became aware of this ancient preference of Pliny while listening to a course by Professor Stephen Tuck on ancient Pompeii. He brings out Pliny's preferences as well as those of Nero's "arbiter of taste' namely in the man, Petronius. What an unusual office. The idea of there being a need for an official to determine sanctioned taste in art and other matters seems quite remarkable. Professor Tuck spends quite a bit of time on the quality of the frescoes in ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are fascinating records of both the mythological and the mundane. Common objects like bags of money are portrayed or a plate of fish and fruit are painted with quite virtuosic skill. There is even one painting from Pompeii that is believed to be the first depiction of pizza. These early works from Pompeii do lack that main Renaissance principle of perspective however. As accomplished as the modeling is in frescoes found there, the orthogonals, ellipses and other perspective visuals are frequently askew. Stil,l those colors, like the deep Pompeiian reds, ochres and blacks all earn our admiration.


Pompeii has been on my mind lately too for other reasons. There is a new technology that holds the promise to decipher the cache of carbonized scrolls discovered in Pompeii. There was a large number of these found in a house there, known now as the Villa of the Papyri. Hundreds of these scrolls may finally be deciphered and bring to life more works by Pliny, Cicero, Horace, Virgil and others. To me this potential revelation of lost ancient authors' work is tantamount to finding the Rosetta Stone or maybe similar to finding a trove of manuscripts that escaped the fire of the ancient library at Alexandia.


We can reasonably wonder if Pliny's aesthetic preference is overdrawn and too bifurcated. There is quite bit of free blending of the common in the visual records with depictions of workers in bakeries, laundries, gladiatorial combat and even brothels. The fresco of a maiden that is shown below is a good case in point. It comes from Villa Ariana is Stabiae, a coastal town not far from Pompeii. The woman is shown from the back picking flowers and she could easily be regarded as the Goddess Flora or this could be a genre scene in a garden. The two art forms cohabitate and complement each other in the first century AD. From centuries later, we think of Botticelli's lithesome maidens in a garden setting with flowers in the Reniassance era. I am thinking of his large painting, Prima Vera in the Uffizi in Florence.


Above- a fresco from Villa Ariana in Stabiae, a town near Pompeii along the Bay of Naples.. She could be regarded as the Goddess Flora or as a flesh and blood woman in a garden picking flowers in the ancient Pompeii region.


Above- This painting by the author is similar to the ancient fresco shown above as it could be a simple genre paintng of women on the coastline at Vernazza in Italy or it could be a painting of a scene from classical mythology- the Three Graces or Ulysses Sirens. This large oil on linen is titled, "Ulysses' Sirens- Tyrrhenian Sea."



In an earlier essay I wrote about Pliny the Elder as there was terrific exhibit at the Johnson Museum of Art here in Ithaca last year. The exhibit covered many of the interests and aspects of Pliny's life and commemorated the 2000th anniversary of his birth. There were many relevancies of the show to contemporary issues just as there is with his thoughts on art of the everyday. An aesthetic from the past that seems somehow very unrelevant, yet at once, it is of interest to us artists of today.


So, whether it be ancient ideas on the environment and being in harmony with nature, which was a concern of Pliny, or with concerns for the purpose of art, we will find corollaries and applications to our lives and art of today.




Above- The concept of "Obsonia". is part of the theme of this painting by the author. The term, from ancient Rome means everyday life, particularly with food items or scenes of dinning and domestic moments. This work titled, "Solstice Breakfast" is an 36" x 40" oil on linen. It depicts a scene from a canoe trip on the Susquehanna River at the mouth of the Towanda Creek- in Bradford County, PA.

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