Manet’s ‘Botte d’asperges’ are probably the most famous asparagus in the world. The artist painted the delicious white- and lilac-tinged spears for the collector Charles Ephrussi in 1880 before invoicing him for 800 francs. Ephrussi was so delighted with them that he paid Manet 1,000 instead, to which Manet responded by sending a second picture. ‘One appears to have escaped your bunch,’ the painter quipped in his accompanying note. The new canvas featured a single asparagus.
Manet was in the last decade of his life when he began sending small paintings of fruit and flowers to his friends. While Ephrussi received asparagus, the muse Méry Laurent got apples, and artist Berthe Morisot violets, like those Manet had included in his portrait of her in mourning. Each picture offered something lasting. I would have given you the real thing, Manet seems to say, but they’d only have rotted away.
There is nothing quite like asparagus. By the time you have your first bunch simmering in the pan you can be sure that it’s spring and that nothing, not even rain, can stop you from enjoying it. For artists, too, asparagus have proved utterly irresistible, the soft, paintbrush tips and stalks like stegosauri with their green-and-purple spikes lending interest to dozens of paintings besides Manet’s.
For the dark background of his ‘Botte d’asperges’, the Frenchman drew inspiration from the artists of the Dutch Golden Age, who were just as enamoured of the vegetable as he was. The little-known Middelburg artist Adriaen Coorte (active 1683–1707) perhaps gloried in asparagus above any other. Typically working on paper mounted on panels measuring just 20-30cm, Coorte produced a number of exquisite still lifes, most of which lay forgotten until the 20th century.
While his contemporaries celebrated profusion, painting extravagant spreads of food too abundant to eat, Coorte favoured what was small and unpretentious.