Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Jose Agustin Arrieta's Images of Women, Food, and Beverage

Article excerpt

There is a custom among the Chatino Indians of Juquila, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, that at birth, newborn boys are given a machete by their fathers, and girls receive a metate and malacate from their mothers.(1) This tradition not only establishes the future economic and social role of the male and female, but confirms the gendered separation of the masculine world of the outdoors, public, and active life and the feminine arena of indoors, private, and passive existence. It reinforces the concept of man as the provider and embodiment of culture and woman as nurturer and symbol of nature. The emphasis on the maternal role of woman is traditionally anchored further to her home, a place of enclosed, safe space. As the public workplace outside the home became the domain for men, women found themselves consistently relegated to the private, domestic sphere. Certainly the virtuous, good wife and mother further contributed to the moral integrity of not only the woman, but her family, village, state, and nation. The kitchen was most notably the quintessential internal space that defined the culminating qualities of woman. The locale of nourishment and nurture, the kitchen, as well as the related spaces of taverns, banquet tables, and market, could be interpreted as the spatial manifestation of the fecundity of the female.

An artist who explored this traditional realm of the female is the Mexican nineteenth-century painter, Jose Agustin Arrieta.(2) Finding inspiration for the subject matter of his art in his homeland of Puebla, Arrieta repeatedly depicted food, drink, and its close connection to women. Arrieta's paintings reflect everyday Puebla life and, specifically, the female and her place and role in the village setting. Exploring Arrieta's world of females and food not only reflects the artist's interest and concern for the nineteenth-century Mexican woman, but also for larger traditions of the religious, social, and sexual connotations of the indigenous symbols of maize and pulque. By constructing genre scenes of women cooking, buying, and serving food, Arrieta not only confirmed the feminine secular role of nourishing mankind, but often elevated that role to an iconic level, as exemplified in his china poblana images. Embracing European models, especially the themes and compositions of Dutch and Spanish genre and still life, Arrieta meticulously and realistically rendered his Puebla world--the actual verisimilitude of his works serving as a conduit for beliefs and values, particularly about women, in his mid-nineteenth-century provincial setting.

Arrieta was born in 1802 in Santa Ana Chiautempan, Tlaxcala, Mexico, and grew up in a family of humble means. He moved to Puebla to attend the Academy of Fine Arts and it was there that he was schooled in the European academic style of painting. European works provided models to be copied in technique and also supplied a new subject matter for Arrieta, particularly seventeenth-century Dutch and Spanish genre and bodegones, in which interest and portrayal of local customs and people were emphasized. It was perhaps the European models that were the impetus for his rejection of the Neo-classical and allegorical academic style; instead he chose to turn inward to paint subjects found in the local Puebla barrios around him. Arrieta also painted many religious images of saints to adorn church interiors as well as portraits for the aristocracy, but it is in his cuadros de costumbres that we can appreciate his true originality and affinity for everyday man and woman. Certainly there was not much money to be made in painting these genre scenes of Puebla, but Arrieta apparently sacrificed potential wealth and notoriety for the pleasure of painting the world he knew, the world that existed immediately around him, before he died in Puebla in 1874.(3)

In discussing Arrieta's images of females, food, and drink, I first survey a selection of these paintings and relate them to European models. …


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