Vegder's Blog

February 12, 2016

The Many Uses of Ebi (海老) – A Fresh Look: Part One

So much in art is merely anecdotal, which is what attracts the bourgeois sentimentalist.

Tokyo National Museum
This costume was worn by Bandō Mitsue for a performance of the play Kuruwa Bunshō.
The actor played Yugiri in the Yoshida-ya scene “performed before the mother of Asano, the magistrate of Kōfu.”

Five months and two weeks before WordPress got started, I began publishing web pages about Japanese prints I was offering for sale along with a ton of information about Japanese culture. That original web site still exists and is probably made up of a couple hundred pages by now. I don’t know for sure and am not in the mood to count them. I do understand the laments that it might be a bit difficult to navigate, but it is my baby. So, I don’t know what to say. One thing I will tell you is that buried in that mess that I call my commercial web site is a page I call “The Many Uses of Ebi“. I put it there because I wanted people to know some of the background and the mysteries tied to the Japanese use of lobster and shrimp imagery and also some of the linguistic gymnastics performed by their use of the kanji characters for those creatures, i.e., 海老. It is the same for both. Now I want to revisit that idea but with a much more expansive approach. That is what I hope to give you here. Please remember to come back to this page often at the beginning, because I will be adding a ton of information – much of it tangential and/or superfluous – until I am worn down and feel the need to move on to the next topic.

A note about the quote at the top of this page: it comes from a novel by John Banville, The Untouchable, in which the protagonist describes himself as an art historian and makes this rather bold comment. We soon find out he may have been lying when he said it. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth quoting at the beginning of this post just  to kick things off in a proper and somewhat enigmatic manner.

Musée Guimet – Hokusai (北斎: 1760-1849) ink on paper, fan shaped – ca. 1803-05

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Tea bowl by Kashu Mimpei (賀集珉平: 1796–1871)

Sèvres, Cité de la céramique – Bol à thé – 19th century

The truth about Salvador Dali and the lobster 

I am going from memory here, but years ago I read Dali’s autobiography and in it he said that he never told the truth. Well, of course, that immediately cast a shadow over everything he ever said or wrote. This brings to mind the ancient paradox attributed to Epimenides (6th c. B.C.?) who is credited with saying something like “All Cretans are liars.” The catch: Epimenides was from Crete. Or as the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it: “…Epimenides, a Cretan, is credited with invention of the paradox of the liar, in which a sentence says of itself that it is false, thus being true if it is false and false if it is true.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

But I was talking about Dali and his enigmatic nature. On one occasion, I heard or I read about the time someone asked him if he ever did drugs, to which he replied: “I am drugs!” Amen Salvador. Amen.

Philadelphia Museum of Art –  lobster dress February 1937
A collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli (エルザ・スキャパレッリ) and Salvador Dali (サルバドール・ダリ)

Wallis Simpson wearing the lobster dress some time in 1937.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art curatorial files quote from Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys Blum:

“Wallis Simpson was a frequent subject of Cecil Beaton’s photographs during the 1930s. Shortly before Simpson’s marriage to the Duke of Windsor in May 1937, Beaton was asked to take some official photographs of the bride-to-be at the Château de Candé, where she was staying as a guest of Charles Bedeaux. Since many of the past photographs of Simpson were unflattering, Beaton suggested more romantic-looking pictures, including an image of her standing in the château’s garden wearing a Schiaparelli dress printed with a large lobster. The infamous lobster dress was a design collaboration with Salvador Dalí that grew out of the lobsters that started appearing in the artist’s work in 1934, including… the mixed-media Lobster Telephone created in 1936. Dalí placed the lobster amid parsley sprigs on the front of the skirt (and apparently was disappointed when Schiaparelli would not allow him to spread real mayonnaise on the finished gown), and master silk designer Sache translated the sketch to the fabric. Beaton took almost a hundred photographs during the session with Simpson, and Vogue devoted an eight-page spread to the results. For Dalí both the telephone and the lobster had sexual connotations. His placement of the lobster thus charged the design with erotic tension, effectively defeating the public-relations purpose of Beaton’s photographs.”

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) wrote a poem about a love affair between a can of corned beef and a lobster. The first lines read:

une boite de corned-beef,enchaînée comme une lorgnette
Vit passer un homard qui lui ressemblait fraternellement-
Il se cuirassait d’une carapace dure
Sur laquelle était écrit à l’intérieur comme elle il était sans arêtes,
(boneless and economocal )

Salvador Dali wrote in his autobiography:
“I do not understand why, when I asked for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone.”

Salvador Dali, lobster and nude

Respecte dans la bête un esprit agissant…

Above is a line from a poem about Pythagoras by the mid-19th century writer Gérard de Nerval (1808-55). He was a precursor to the Symobolists, the Decadents, and the Surrealists. He was creative and brilliant and also a bit mad and eventually hung himself from a lamppost in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne, Paris. He also advocated for a greater look into the unconscious world of our dreams.

In 1911 Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), one of those who inspired Dali, wrote about Nerval who had pilfered a lobster that was to be someone’s supper one night. He was caught and paid the fine, but kept the lobster which he called Thibault. Later  he was seen walking the lobster by a long blue ribbon in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. When he was later mocked for this bizarre behavior he said: “And what could be quite so ridiculous as making a dog, a cat, a gazelle, a lion or any other beast follow one about. I have affection for lobsters. They are tranquil, serious and they know the secrets of the sea.”

Ambrose Bierce  in his Devil’s Dictionary defined the crayfish as “A small crustacean very much resembling the lobster, but less indigestible.”

Something – and I do mean ‘something’ a bit Russian for a change 

Previously I wrote: “I wish I could tell you what exactly is going on in this Russian caricature, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that Russia and Japan fought one hellacious war back in the first decade of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize because of it. But that’s pretty ancient history now.”

Museum of Fine Arts – Russian lithograph on card stock, 1904

The text reads – sort of, because my Russian is abysmal to nonexistent:

Вотъ японски вояки,
Толъко храбръе… во мракѣ
Поползли назадъ, какъ раки,
Оть Артура въ Нагасаки!..

My attempt at a translation was pathetic and absurdist. Fortunately, someone named Yuugao wrote and gave me this translation which seems to be spot on. I could not be more grateful.

Here are the Japanese fighting-cocks、
Who are brave only when it`s dark outside
They crawl like crayfishes
From [Port] Arthur to Nagasaki

Whew… At least that much is clear. Oh, and by the way, don’t ever ask me to translate anything again. Countries have gone to war for less than this. Can you blame them?

Lobster bisque anyone?

In Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook by Francine Segan there is a recipe for lobster hash from The Accomplisht Cook from 1660:

Take them out of the shells, mince them small, and put them in a pipkin with some claret wine,
salt, sweet butter, grated nutmeg, slic’t oranges, & some pistaches; being finely stewed, serve
them on sippets, dish them, and run them over with beaten butter, slic’t oranges, some cuts of
paste, or lozenges of puff-paste.

The silver tureen shown below is from a more refined period, almost exactly a hundred years later and by a Huguenot craftsman whose family must have fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. France’s loss.

Soup tureen by Jacques Peirolet – Amsterdam – 1765-66
Note that it is clearly Rococo, but an oh so restrained example of that style.

Old cookbooks fascinate me. Almost the older the better. Of course, I don’t spend much time with them, but they still have an alluring attraction for me. The older they are the more I have to look things up. And naturally, there are probably hundreds is not thousands of ways of preparing lobsters and shrimp and things you don’t even want to think about. I ran across one other recipe from The Accomplisht Cook which is intriguing on all kinds of levels: Here below is a description of how to farce a lobster:

Take a lobster being half boil’d, take the meat out of the shells, and mince it small with a good fresh eel,
season it with cloves & mace beaten, some sweet herbs minced small and mingled amongst the meat,
yolks of eggs, gooseberries, grapes, or barberries, and sometimes boil’d artichocks cut into dice-work,
or boil’d aspragus, and some almond-paste mingled with the rest, fill the lobster shells, claws, tail, and
body, and bake it in a blote oven, make sauce with the gravy and whitewine, and beat up the sauce or lear
with good sweet butter, a grated nutmeg, juyce of oranges, and an anchove, and rub the dish with a clove
of garlick.To this farcing you may sometime add almond paste currans, sugar, gooseberries, and make balls
to lay about the lobsters, or serve it with venison sauce.

First off, what the hell is farcing? I went to look it up and lookr first at my trusted Oxford Dictionary online. I looked it up under “farce” and found the standard definitions of the noun form, but nothing referring to it as a verb. It gave its origin as: “Early 16th century: from French, literally ‘stuffing’, from farcir ‘to stuff’, from Latin farcire. An earlier sense of ‘forcemeat stuffing’ became used metaphorically for comic interludes “stuffed” into the texts of religious plays, whence current usage.” Hmmm? Then I noticed a comment posted below by Joe Wolf DiDomenico. It said, and rightly so, “Where is the definition of this word as a verb? Are there no chefs on staff there?” So, then I went to the Collins English Dictionary and found this: “to stuff (meat, fowl, etc) with forcemeat”. Now were getting somewhere. ‘Forcemeat’ means… Oh, wait a second. I think my dinner is ready. Maybe, I will get back to you later on this one.

The lobster as punishment – Oh No, not lobster again tonight!

“In colonial times, lobsters were considered “poor people’s food.” They were harvested from tidal pools and served to children, prisoners, and indentured servants, who exchanged their passage to America for seven years of service to their sponsors. In Massachusetts,some of the servants finally rebelled and had it put into their contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week.” Quoted from: The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, p. 551.

Now I know what that green stuff is called – tomalley:

“The digestive gland of a lobster, which turns green when cooked. It is sometimes considered a delicacy.” – Oxford English Dictionary

The Collins English Dictionary gives a slightly different definition: “fat from a lobster, called “liver”, and eaten as a delicacy”. It also says that the etymology is from the Caribbean in the 17th century: “compare Galibi tumali sauce of crab or lobster liver”.

Cold_poached_lobster_with_tomalley_vinaigrette_T.Tseng _ Flickr_7
This image was posted at Flickr by T.Tseng.

An outer garment worn in kabuki 

Kitsuke (着付け)

Oh, those Greeks! Those oh so silly, silly, silly, but extremely creative Greeks!

In the preface to Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour by the author/scholar Alexandre G. Mitchell, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford, it states: “For the sake of scholarship, one cannot afford to crack jokes in a study on humour: it would be an ontological mistake, but I have tried as far as possible to avoid writing a dour, heavy-handed book.” Fortunately for us lay-people the humor just shines through sometimes. It doesn’t always take an expert to see it. However, this in no way is meant to convey a ‘dis’ of Dr. Mitchell’s work. His book eases the pathway for us, not only to see things we would have missed, but helps us to understand the context. Now, if only he could do the same for the field of Japanese iconography… [Sigh. Big sigh.] Alas… [Another sigh.]

Yale – lekythos (λήκυθος) in the shape of a lobster claw – 5th century B.C.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica lekythos is an ancient Greek “…oil flask used at baths and gymnasiums and for funerary offerings, characterized by a long cylindrical body gracefully tapered to the base and a narrow neck with a loop-shaped handle. The word lekythos (as well as its plural form,lekythoi) is known from ancient sources. The Athenians seem to have used the term generically to mean any small oil flask.” Note that there is no looped handle on the wonderful piece shown above.

Metropolitan Museum of Art – black glazed, terracotta vase in the shape of a sandaled foot – 1st half of the 5th century B.C.

British Museum – Attic askos in the shape of a lobster’s claw, 470-400 BC

A University of Oxford web site notes that: “The Greek word askos refers to the bags made of animal-skin that were used to carry wine; in Athenian red-figure scenes, they are often depicted in the arms of satyrs. Its modern application to this pottery-shape originates in the supposed similarity of some examples to animal-skins.” This piece doesn’t seem to be true to form on this point, but maybe it is just creative license at work.

How ’bout one more lobster claw-like ancient terracotta vessel?

Metropolitan Museum of Art – terracotta vase by the so-called Class of Seven Lobster-Claws from ca. 460 B.C.

My question: Does anyone out there know how the Class of Seven Lobster-Claws got their name? I am not a total slouch when it comes to doing research, but for the life of me I can’t figure this one out. Must be out of my pay grade. If you do know the answer to my question and if you are kind enough to contact me, please provide some kind of proof, too. Thanks.

The Rape of Europa… with lobster in the lower left!

British Museum – attributed to the Policoro Painter, ca. 400-390 B.C. – red-figured amphora

Rembrandt’s version – sans the lobster or homard if you prefer

Rembrandt’s rendition of this tale was painted almost exactly 2,000 years after the Lucanian, Greek, version shown above. You may be wondering why I included it here in a section devoted to shrimp and lobster imagery. Well, I’ll tell you. Until recently I was totally unaware of the amphora with Zeus, the bull and the wind-blown Europa riding on top. But I was not unaware of the general theme. In fact, I had made my pilgrimage to the Gardner Museum in Boston to see Titian’s late painting of this subject. Some people think it is the greatest Titian in America. That is their opinion and I am not disputing their choice, but there are others to consider in the mix.

That brings me to the Getty’s early Rembrandt shown below. For decades it hung on loan in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and every time I went to New York, and that was a lot, I went to pay homage to this little gem. It is jewel-like and no reproduction can do it justice. If you can’t get to the Getty to see it in person then go to their web site and download it to your computer – all 13.8 megabytes as I recall – so you can scrutinize it in its finest details to your hearts delight. It is truly one of the greatest treasures in any American museum. The amphora above gave me the idea of showing it to you here – lobster or no lobster.

Getty Museum of Art
Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa – 1632
(My bad! Turns out I used this image on one other post. I think it was the snake/zodiac one.
Doesn’t matter. What matters is that I forgot that I had used it already. However, since it is
one of my favorite paintings of all time, I decided to keep it here, too. But it turns out the first
time I inserted it into a post I used a much crisper more pleasing reproduction than the one
provided by the Getty. So… I replaced the one I had here with the earlier version and
now am much happier about it. Enjoy.)

Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony gave his own take on this myth:

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover’s coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa. Then the white beast dived into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough above the
water to keep the girl from getting wet. There were plenty of witnesses. Triton answered the amorous bellowing with a burst on his conch. Trembling, Europa hung on to one of the bull’s long horns. Boreas spotted them too as they plowed through the waves. Sly and jealous, he whistled when he saw
the young breasts his breath had uncovered. High above, Athena blushed at the sight of her father bestraddled by a girl. An Achaean sailor saw them
and gasped. Could it be Tethys, eager to see the sky? Or just some Nereid with clothes on her back for a change? Or was it that trickster Poseidon
carrying off another wench? 

Europa, meantime, could see no end to this crazy sea crossing. But she guessed what would happen to her when they hit land again. And she shouted to
wind and water: “Tell my father Europa has been carried off by a bull – my kidnapper, my sailor, my future bedmate, I imagine. “Please give this necklace to my mother.” She was going to call to Boreas too, ask him to lift her up on his wings, the way he’d done with his own bride, Oreithyia, from Athens. But
she bit her tongue: why swap one abductor for another?

I am a member of the 99.999999999% Are you with me?

Okay, okay… so I am exaggerating. Also, I am not referring to the wealth discrepancies found all over the globe. Except, God knows, I am about as far from that 1% that almost everyone is always carping about all of the time. No, I am referring to that 99.9% plus of people who might look at the image below – and enjoy it, I dare say – and not have a clue what in the hell it might mean – especially that rather large brownish crustacean which is decorating his robe. My guess is that there are 50 to 100 people on this entire planet who could tell you who this man is – both actor and role – when it is from, and what in the hell that damned lobster is doing there – in detail, of course. Actually my guess that there are 50 to 100 people worldwide who would know might just be a generous guess. Oh, and by the way, while I can tell you some things about this print, I am far from being an expert and am left with more questions than answers.

Waseda University – the actor Kawarazaki Gonjurō I (初代河原崎権十郎) as Ise Ebi Higezō (伊勢海老髭蔵) by Kunichika (国周), 1865

The whole pentaptych so you can get some perspective on it.

It would be so much simpler if the lobster/shrimp motif only appeared on the robes of any actor playing one specific role, but that is not the case as can be seen by the Ashiyuki Osaka print image shown below. It was sent to me by my friend Dan Levitz at


So what does all of this have to do with Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese, and her prominently exposed breasts?

You are probably asking yourself how in the hell I got from a discussion of lobster imagery to Pauline Borhese’s breasts. Well, I’ll tell you. Several ticks up this page I posted an image of a Greek lekythos in the shape of a lobster’s claw as a drinking vessel. I mentioned this to a friend I ran into while buying groceries at the local Safeway. That reminded me of the time I read about the golden cup created by the House of Odiot, goldsmith’s to the Emperor Napoleon. It was fashioned from a mold taken of one of the breasts of the Emperor’s sister, Pauline. Couldn’t remember which breast it was, but that is not the point. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it always struck me as a bit out of the ordinary that a woman of such stature would consent to the production of such an item.

But then I started thinking about it. Who in history is believed to have the biggest ego ever? There are lots of candidates for that position, and the final answer is unknowable. But in the end, Napoleon’s ego has to rank right up there with the best of them. The ‘Little Corporal’ was handsome, dashing, brilliant, and adventuresome, if a bit on the short side. Of humble origins he still went on to be the man who when he entered a room everyone knew it. He owned the place. He owned the palace. Considering that, why would his favorite sister, who was beautiful in her own right, be much different? I am not sure she was. Maybe that is why she posed ‘in the raw’ as the goddess Venus for the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Did he ask her or was it her idea? I am still looking into that and will try to get back to you later.

But back to the point: if the ancient Greeks could fashion a drinking vessel out of a fabricated lobster’s claw – not they didn’t use lots of other recognizable forms, too – then why couldn’t a woman whose whole existence was based on her perceptions of herself as the most beautiful and desirable woman alive not want to immortalize her features in something so mundane – I am being ironic here – as a gold cup made from a mold of one of her breasts? Why shouldn’t the most powerful men in the world want to drink from such a creation? Mother’s milk? Nectar of the gods?

Musée des arts décoratifs
Gold cup by Odiot made from a mold of one of Pauline Borghese’s breasts

It should be noted that the Queen of England owns a pair of standing bowls made by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot (1763–1850) from this original model. The curatorial files on these items state:

One stand and both bowls were bought from Odiot by George IV, when Prince Regent, on 30 November 1815 for 549 francs.
The bill from Odiot describes the bowls as being in the form of the breast of Venus, although it is more likely that they were
modelled on the breast of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline de Borghese. The second stand was supplied by Rundells in 1816.
For a total price of £52 3s 2d, Rundells also added a butterfly handle to the second bowl and gilded all the items.

Here is the mold said to have been made by Canova, but I am not so sure.
I’ll have to read more about this one. Maybe I will even need a crash course in Italian.
[That isn’t going to happen. I was being ironic, in case you missed it.]

Antonio Canova (アントニオ・カノーヴァ: 1751-1822) – sculpture of Pauline Borghese (ポーリーヌ・ボルゲーゼ: 1780-1825),
Napoleon’s sister, as Venus (金星)

While I am on the subject of Venus and her breasts 

Years ago my best friend and I took a rode trip, on the cheap, to New York City. Basically we were both unsophisticated, ignorant, Midwestern rubes. I am still ignorant, but less so. In fact, I wear my ignorance as a badge of honor because it means that I always have more to learn. But, back to our trip to New York. We set as a most desirable destination the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We got there before it opened that day. My mission was to find and gape at in awe on particular painting by Veronese, Mars and Venus United by Love.

We entered the grand hall and were overwhelmed by its size. The museum is somewhat deceptive from the outside. It is enormous on the inside and no ordinary human being could cover it all or do it justice in any true sense of the word in one day. We checked our backpacks and set out in search of that one Veronese painting. We asked the direction to the European painting galleries and started up the broad, grand staircase. As luck would have it, out of all the millions of items owned by that museum, the object of our quest, our Holy Grail was located at the very top of that staircase, planted smack dab in the middle. It was almost as though they knew we were coming. Below is that image and a detail of the right breast of Venus.

Metropolitan Museum of Art


And, NO!, if you are wondering… I don’t have any particular fixation with anything other than art, history, politics, science, nature – both flora and fauna, people, literature, language, linguistics and linguine. I threw in the last one just to continue the alliteration. Even had to look up how to spell it. So I reiterate: I am not fixated on women’s breasts any more than I am fixated on anything else. Doesn’t tell you much about me, does it?

But wait! Now I know you will never believe my Lady Macbeth-like protestations. I just thought of another great but similar painting involving bare breasts. The Origin of the Milky Way by Tintoretto and dating from ca. 1580.

National Gallery, London – Jacopo Tintoretto


Now back to the topic of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese’s beauty 

“La princesse Pauline Bonaparte fait reproduire sur la toile, en miniature, en émail et dans le marbre, son beau visage, au profil antique, par Prudhon, Devouge, Gros, Robert Lefèvre, Isabey, Quaglia, Morelli, etc., et pose fièrement devant Canova, comme Phryné devant Praxitèle, la nudité de ses formes superbes.”

I didn’t know about the comparison to Phryné and Praxitiles, but it makes sense. Praxitiles was said to be the greatest sculptor of ancient Greece and Phryné was said to be the most beautiful woman alive. She posed twice for statues of her representing the goddess Aphrodite. Because of this, and possibly on trumped up charges, she was arrested and tried for the impious presumption of thinking that she was as beautiful as the goddess of love and beauty herself. The areopagus, or judges of Athens, tried her. She was losing her case until her advocate, Hyperides, in desperation, knowing that she would be convicted and put to death, ripped off her robes and declared [something like] “Look gentlemen, and judge for yourself. Is she not as beautiful of Aphrodite?” The crowd gasped and she was acquitted.

How do I know this stuff. Well, I’ll tell you. It is because Jean-Léon Gérôme, an academic painter at the end of the 19th century painted a picture of this scene or how he imagined it to have been. Take a look for yourself. Isn’t she as beautiful as the goddess of love? [That last question is rhetorical.]

I believe that this painting is from the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany. I found it at commons.wikimedia.

What a high ranking courtesan – read prostitute – must have looked like when she was all dolled up!

Actually the image below by Hokuei isn’t of a prostitute at all. It is an impression of the male actor Iwai Shijaku I (初代岩井紫若) playing a female role representing a prostitute. His (her) costume is particularly interesting and rife with symbolism. The ebi is one of the features of a New Year’s display, as is the straw wreath which often includes the greenery as seen on the obi.  Kadomatsu (門松) or gate pines are hung before an entrance to a shrine as a sign to the gods or kami that this is a safe place to rest. But here, I think, the urajiro (裏白) or fern fronds are substituted for those pine boughs.

You have probably already noticed the similarity between the twisted sections of the wreath and the lobster’s articulated shell. My compliments.

National Museums of Scotland – Hokuei (北洲) print from 1832

Your dinner, Mr. President!

Minneapolis Institute of Art – lobster plate from the Rutherford B. Hayes service, ca. 1882

It is interesting that Hayes term in office was from 1877 to 1881. Yet several museum collections and historical sites give a date of ca. 1882 for parts of the presidential dinner service. I have yet to figure out why there is this discrepancy. If I do, I will let you know about it. But until then here is a quote from the Office of the Curator of the White House about that set.

 In 1879, a state dinner service for President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes was commissioned from Haviland & Co., Limoges, France. After a meeting with Mrs. Hayes in the White House conservatory, Theodore R. Davis, an artist for Harper’s Weekly, who advocated a service designed with American flora and fauna, was asked to assume direction of the designs. From his drawings, etchings were produced for transfer of the outlines to many new dish shapes; basic coloring was applied by chromolithographic and decalcomania processes and then shaded by decorators. The dinner platters (both extant) were described as painted with “a magnificent wild turkey, who struts through the light snow, upon which are seen delicate reflections from his rich-colored plumage…on this most perfectly American dish.”

Military hardware, mostly for show 

The Walters Art Museum – kashira by Iwamoto Konkan (1744-1801)

The Walters Art Museum – fuchi by Iwamoto Konkan (1744-1801)

What messages were the Dutch still life painters of the 16th and 17th centuries sending us with those exquisite images of luxury? 

I know what a ton of the art historians have said – and not said: The still life is a form of vanitas. A reminder that life it fleeting. That you can’t take it with you. But what were the artists really saying? What were the pictures saying? Could the two things be different? I think they could be.

You can’t tell me that all of the great artists who created such inspirational religious paintings and sculptures during the Renaissance and later were models of rectitude, that they were all choir boys. Have you ever met any choir boys. They aren’t all so nice. They might have heavenly voices, but don’t turn your back on them – or, at least, some of them. So… what are these paintings with lobsters in them telling us? Maybe nothing more than “Look at me! I can’t paint like all-get-out!” Nothing more, nothing less. But, if you still prefer to read into them some kind of moralistic lesson, that is your prerogative. Believe what you want.

Below are two magnificent Dutch still life paintings. The first is the earlier and a little less glitzy, but no less facile.

National Gallery, London – by Willem Kalf (1619-1693) – painted in 1653

If you look closely you will see not only the beautifully painted lobster, the partially peeled lemon – gorgeous, but tart – the extremely expensive glass goblet with attached prunts to keep it from slipping from your fingers when they are oh so greasy, but also the drinking horn of the Corporation of the Archers of St. Sebastian – whoever they were. Oh, and don’t forget to look at the similarly rare and valuable oriental rug. A nice, and almost subtle, touch.

Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie – Dresden
Still-life with fruit, flowers and lobster by Cornelis de Heem (1631-1695)

Metropolitan Museum of Art –Kyōgen kataginu

The curatorial files at the Met give a fuller description of this garment:

“Sometimes called “the old man of the sea” because of its bent back, the Japanese lobster (ise-ebi or kamakuraebi) is a symbol of longevity. Here it appears on the back of a vest worn for theatrical performances. Kyōgen is a comic form of Japanese theater performed together with the more serious Noh. Boldly patterned overvests (kataginu) were worn for important kyōgen roles, such as Tarōkaja, the comical servant. The kataginu would be worn over a robe and with trousers patterned with circular crests.”

Who knew or ever guessed? Some fun facts, rumors or misconceptions about the word ‘lobster’.

Hold on. Here goes. A load of lobster stuff I never knew and still not sure I do. I found this in the Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green.

Lobster, used from the 17th century to the 19th, 1) “a soldier, a marine (who wears scarlet)”; 2) from the mid-19th century – a policeman in the UK; originally from the full suits of armor worn by the Roundheads in Cromwell’s New Model Army. Later by the color of the uniforms worn by British soldiers… the redcoats are coming, a la Paul Revere.

Lobster, mid-19th century American, 1) “a slow-witted, awkward or gullible person; a general term of abuse”; 2) from the late 19th century to the 1910s, “a second-rate racehorse”.

Lobster, 19th century into the 1900s; “an older man who gives a younger woman presents and/or money in return for sexual favours”.

Lobster, 19th century into the 1900s; “the penis”.

Lobster, from the 1980s on in Australia; “a 20-year jail sentence”.

Lobster-pot, 19th century, the vagina.

Wait a second. Several of the slang terms listed above have sexual connotations. This is where I had my Homer Simpson ‘Doh!’ moment. Of course they do. There slang. What else was slang put there for? Doh! And just so you know, there are a lot more sexually charged and explicit uses for the word lobster in that dictionary, but I figured that by now you had gotten the point. If you haven’t then start thinking from the gutter and odds are you’ll figure it out.

Please come back often as I fill in the gaps with detailed information and blatherings. There is a lot more to come. Be forewarned.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at