Of the Dutch painter Adriaen Coorte, very little is known, not even the year of his birth or death. He was active for about three decades, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Only one contemporary matter of record truly stands out: in the provincial city of Middelburg, where he lived and worked, he was taxed for selling a painting without being a member of the local painters’ guild, after which he joined up. His simple compositions, their dark backdrops, their few and plain props, put him out of fashion, for he painted during the Dutch Golden Age, when nimiety ruled the still-life genre. He was forgotten until the 1950s. Since then, however, his 55 known works, a significant number of them depictions of asparagus, have gained a luster not bestowed on them during the artist’s life. In 2011, a newly discovered painting by Coorte went at auction for more than $4,000,000.
When an artist sticks with a subject over time, it’s natural to wonder why. In the 1600s, asparagus was a luxury food, as it is now. One might make the case that, in any era, an expensive food is a love food on those grounds alone, but asparagus was in the 17th century considered a love food for its special properties. The English physician and botanist Nicholas Culpeper, in his Complete Herbal (1652), wrote of asparagus that “being taken fasting several mornings together, [it] stirreth up bodily lust in man or woman (whate’er some have written to the contrary.)”
Did the reach of the Complete Herbal, a runaway bestseller for its time, extend to Middelburg, then a slave-trading hub whose first university came as late as 2004? How I wish I knew. But Coorte’s images — fruit, butterflies, shells, asparagus — are rich in the symbolic language used by painters of his time, and lit with a radiant specificity that suggests the deeper meaning will be revealed with contemplation.Still Life with Asparagus, Adriaen Coorte, 1697. Oil paint on paper mounted on a panel, h. 25cm × w. 20.5cm. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.