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  • Emulating Vatel:Portraitomanie, Celebrity, and Culinary Intermediality, 1880-1914

With the rise of gastronomic culture in nineteenth-century France, self-immolating seventeenth-century maître d'hôtel Francois Vatel was rehabilitated, however erroneously, as a model of culinary distinction and precursor of the celebrity chef. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, popular images of Vatel (post and trade cards, catalog covers or letterhead), like failed attempts at more exalted renderings – notably a lard statue – provide a paragon to emulate. Through "culinary intermediality," key elements of culinary art figure within visual art, as Vatel portraits intertwine with foodstuffs, food preparation, kitchen paraphernalia, and the hopes and dreams of both professional and home chefs.

IN 1671, WHILE COORDINATING FESTIVITIES for Louis XIV's visit to the Château de Chantilly, François Vatel despaired over a delayed seafood delivery and impaled himself upon his sword. He was not a cook, but rather a maître d'hôtel, his status far superior to a chef's, within the Ancien Régime system of household management. The prestige of his station and poignancy of his suicide notwithstanding, Vatel would be forgotten, "tombé dans l'oubli presque immédiatement après sa mort."1 He would nonetheless be rediscovered in the nineteenth century and remembered, however mistakenly, as a model chef, his superior social standing construed, anachronistically, as validating the culinary profession, at a time when the kitchen sought such legitimation. Vatel's rehabilitation emerged within the context of a burgeoning post-revolutionary democratization of gastronomic culture, heralded in the first decades of the century by commentators like Joseph Berchoux, Alexandre-Balthasar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière or Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and marked by the advent of the first celebrity chef worthy of the name, Antonin Carême.2 In notable contrast to a long history of cooks, who languished as lowly, largely faceless domestic servants, sword-wielding officier de bouche Vatel seemed a paragon of distinction, even a precursor of the newly-arrived celebrity chef. While not a chef, he embodied an ideal toward which latter-day culinarians might aspire.

Adeline Wrona has demonstrated how, in the nineteenth century, portraits proliferated across and between literature, journalism, and the visual arts. Spanning popular and elite culture, portraits renewed, reinvigorated, and transformed the traditional genre of biography, while integrating into and shaping new media like photography.3 Throughout the nineteenth century, riding the rising tide of portraitomanie, Vatel's legend spun off across verbal and visual forms, from gastronomic writing, to theater, to popular visual media. He cut a polyvalent, equivocal figure, a patron saint of chefs and martyr for the culinary cause, his sacrifice heroic or futile, even ridiculous, a derogation of professional responsibility. At times, his dramatic self-impalement might be omitted, with Vatel held up solely as a paradigm of French culinary excellence. By the end of the century, as his name became synonymous with the culinary profession, it would increasingly be used to mean a chef— [End Page 47] a type, not an individual, with ironic references to "un vatel," in text and image, oft designating a low-level cook.

For rare chefs like Carême, Alexis Soyer or Auguste Escoffier, who rose to prominence in the nineteenth century, their celebrity remained riddled with doubt, stemming from the longstanding humbleness of their station, and the view of cooks as artisans rather than artists, their works crafted from perishable foodstuffs, clashing with the reigning heroic, monumental paradigm of artistic creation. As most cooks still toiled in anonymity, servility, and perceived ignominy, by century's end they began organizing collectively, to improve working conditions and raise their standing, through unions and trade publications like Le progrès des cuisiniers. Within this context of professional legitimation, amid dead end drudgery for most but real opportunity for the few, venerable precursor Vatel offered a compelling if ambiguous and contradictory model to emulate.

Late nineteenth-century celebrity culture likewise unfolded amid contradictions, at the crossroads of distinction and democratization. Between about 1880 and 1914, la statuomanie multiplied monumental tributes to cultural luminaries, rendered in supposedly permanent material.4 Meanwhile, a media revolution, with the expansion of the press and spread of photography, bolstered the pre-existing vogue of portraitomanie, in a profusion of more or less famous faces—Napoléon III or Sarah Bernhardt versus farmers posing with pigs5—on images that, like celebrity itself, could seem ever more trivial and fleeting. Vatel was also a distant but rehabilitated historical figure in the nascent national pantheon, for whom a lack of documentary visual evidence let portraitists use their imagination. Yet, unlike more unambiguously heroic counterparts, celebrated across modest through prestigious media, Vatel, like chefs generally, was considered ineligible for grander tributes, oil paintings or sculpture in marble or bronze, never realized but nonetheless envisioned.

Vatel effigies thus took shape mainly in popular, mass-produced media. Not portraits in a strict sense, these imaginative versions of their subject appear in forms—chromolithographic trade cards, humorous postcards, catalog covers, even letterhead—not usually associated with portraiture. Yet, they still display a central figure somehow identified as "Vatel," while depicting would-be Vatels emulating the distinguished original. Circulating within networks of consumers and collectors, and among culinary professionals, these images relate explicitly and implicitly to the tools and trappings of the trade—like sharp knives and chefs' uniforms—as well as to culinary creation and the ephemeral stuff composing it, like the absent seafood, intertwined with impending suicide, in a nexus of glory and doom. [End Page 48]

In revealing contrast, writers, nineteenth-century France's most venerated cultural figures, were represented across media—from prints and photography to statuary—typically in relation to their work, through frontispiece portraits, pens mightier than swords, massive leather-bound tomes, etc.6 With little cultural precedent for culinary celebrity, however, top chefs from Carême to Escoffier seized upon literature's cachet, styling themselves as men of letters, invoking a ready-made iconography of writers and their literary œuvre. But Vatel images diverge from this masquerade, capitalizing on their subject's paradoxical prestige as a non-chef nonetheless remembered as one. They present cooks as cooks, professionals in work clothes and work spaces, with greatness, or aspirations thereto, envisioned in culinary settings. Such popular images, like failed attempts at more exalted renderings of Vatel, exhibit what might be called culinary intermediality, as key elements of culinary art figure within visual art. Indeed, culinary intermediality is a noteworthy constant across the varied corpus of Vatel images—visual representations all interwoven, in so many different and suggestive ways, with foodstuffs, food preparation, and kitchen paraphernalia, as well as with the hopes and dreams of both professional and home chefs.

Rediscovering Vatel

Mme de Sévigné's letter relating Vatel's suicide, the primary source to which nineteenth-century Vatel lore refers, reads like a first-person account. But as Sévigné was in Paris, she provides information from a friend at Chantilly, where the king's visit to the impoverished but proud Prince de Condé put pressure on the latter's maître d'hôtel. First afflicted by several missing roasts, then by clouds spoiling an expensive firework display, Vatel panics over the absent seafood delivery:

[I]l trouve Gourville, et lui dit: "Monsieur, je ne survivrai pas à cet affront-ci; j'ai de l'honneur et de la réputation à perdre." Gourville se moqua de lui. Vatel monte à sa chambre, met son épée contre la porte, et se la passe au travers le cœur; mais ce ne fut qu'au troisième coup, car il s'en donna deux qui n'étaient pas mortels: il tombe mort. La marée cependant arrive de tous côtés; on cherche Vatel pour la distribuer; on va à sa chambre; on heurte, on enfonce la porte; on le trouve noyé dans son sang7

Sévigné establishes key elements of the story, like the missing fish, consternation confessed to Condé's intendant Gourville, bedchamber, three sword blows, and forced door; the royal visit takes precedence, however, with Vatel's loss regrettable but reparable, and festivities still enchanting without him. Sympathetically yet condescendingly called "le pauvre Vatel," his misfortune [End Page 49] proceeds from "de l'honneur en sa manière," a subordinate's misconstruing of aristocratic mores. Nor does Sévigné invoke heroism, martyrdom or glory, ideals that would underpin the evolving Vatel legend.

Vatel figured in nineteenth-century gastronomic discourse from the outset. Joseph Berchoux's La gastronomie (1801)—a popular, poetic celebration of gastronomy that launched the word itself—dedicates 50 alexandrines to Vatel's suicide and references Sévigné's letter. While Sévigné's Vatel just defends his honor and personal "réputation," Berchoux's conveys professional conscience ("J'ai trahi mon devoir, avili mon emploi") and a more expansive vision of glory, with his "renommée" and "lauriers" sullied. Meanwhile, in a warning ("O vous! qui par état présidez aux repas, / Donnez-lui des regrets, mais ne l'imitez pas!"), Berchoux underscores the potential for emulation so central to the Vatel legend's further articulation, in word and image.8 In the 1805 edition, moreover, a Silvestre David Myris engraving illustrates the section relating Vatel's suicide (Figure 1). The kitchen help rushing to his aid force the door, pushing into his room, into the picture, with the door abutting his stricken form and aligning with the rectangular end of Vatel's bed, to frame a picture-within-the picture of the fallen hero, illuminated by light streaming in from rear. Along with a caption citing Berchoux's evocation of this scene, the image offers a mise en abyme of the period (re)discovering, representing, and highlighting Vatel and his heroic martyrdom. At the same time, it points up multiple contradictions underlying Vatel's legend. There is the well-appointed bedchamber, with picturesque window and balcony, telescope at the ready, hot chocolate service on the night stand, and elegantly prostrate Vatel, noble sword through his heart, an early romantic, Chatterton-like figure, acceding to cultural immortality through suicide.9 Yet into this refined space burst proletarian garçons de cuisine, sleeves rolled up their muscular limbs. One is armed with kitchen knife rather than sword; the other bears upon his head a basket of perishable seafood, perhaps an intimation of intellectual limitations, and a sure reminder of culinary art's ephemerality. As the worlds of boudoir and kitchen collide at the door, so do high and low social status, fame and obscurity, cultural endurance and evanescence. While Vatel images remained rare during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, the Myris engraving, accompanying the first notable textual treatment of the Vatel legend, heralds the more abundant Vatel effigies produced during the early Third Republic.

In the 1810 volume of his groundbreaking Almanach des gourmands, pioneering gastronomic writer Alexandre-Balthasar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière lauds Vatel: [End Page 50]

Figure 1. Silvestre David Myris, illustration for Joseph Berchoux, La gastronomie (1805), engraving. Author's collection.
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Figure 1.

Silvestre David Myris, illustration for Joseph Berchoux, La gastronomie (1805), engraving. Author's collection.

Pour moi l'homme par excellence,Cest le trop sensible Vatel;Son alimentaire scienceLe rend digne d'être immortel,De regrets, de reconnoissance.10

As in Berchoux, Grimod references Sévigné—"Voyez, dans les inimitables Lettres de la Marquise de Sévigné, le récit de cette mort vraiment touchante et glorieuse"—with "glorieuse" echoing "immortel" (170). While neither text mentions heroism or martyrdom, both celebrate Vatel as a key gastronomic figure, with Berchoux furthering the idea of his enduring fame. Carême would moreover reinterpret Vatel's honor as exemplary professionalism: "Le cuisinier français est mu [sic] dans son travail par un point d'honneur inséparable de l'art culinaire: témoin la mort du grand Vatel."11 [End Page 51]

In Scribe and Mazères's 1825 "comédie-vaudeville" Vatel, ou le petit-fils d'un grand homme, Vatel's grandson and great-grandson aspire to the culinary "gloire" of their "illustre aïeul […] mort au champ d'honneur."12 Though in a comic register, the play underscores emulation, heroism, and glory, all at the core of emergent Vatel lore. Five years later, the first issue of Paul Lacroix's biweekly Le gastronome invokes gastronomy's "saints," and notably "Vatel, martyr de la foi culinaire."13 By mid-century, such references were common, especially in culinary and gastronomic contexts. The Revue gastronomique, for example, again celebrates "Vatel, cet illustre martyr de la foi culinaire,"14 while an English women's magazine, in its cooking column, praises this "very hero of the fleshpot" and "martyr to his profession," claiming that "[n]either the 'Lives of the Saints' nor Fox's 'Book of Martyrs' contains anything so tragic as Madame Sévigné's account of his latter end."15 Alongside this dominant vision of Vatel as culinary hero and martyr, we also find a fanciful if less frequent narrative about spurned love, not absent seafood, prompting his suicide, though in this context he can still be hailed as a chef and cast as a hero, albeit a sentimental one instead.

By the late nineteenth century "un vatel" means simply a chef, as examples proliferated (notably in the national, regional, and colonial press) of phrases like "disciple de Vatel," "moderne Vatel" or "émule de Vatel," with the latter often "digne." For instance, the review of a new "Restaurant Parisien" in Bougie (Béjaïa, Algeria)—the establishment's name already indulging in emulation—praises owner Sumian for choosing "un cuisinier de premier mérite … un émule de Vatel." The latter epithet even provides the headline, yet the chef is never named; the model looms larger than the copy.16 So too we find countless French restaurants named "Petit Vatel," "Grand Vatel" or some variation thereof, remarks about imitating or not imitating Vatel's suicide, and cuisine called "l'art de Vatel." While generally "un substantif prestigieux" (Michel 33), "Vatel" could also be used to dismiss ignoble hash-slingers, like third-rate seducers dubbed Don Juan or Casanova. In short, "Vatels" abounded in late nineteenth-century France, in text or image, more or less credible imitations of an exalted original.

Cards, catalogs, and cookware

Chromolithographic trade cards or chromos were frequently offered to children by businesses eager to cultivate them as collectors and their parents as customers, as with McDonald's Happy Meal toys today.17 Various cards depict Vatel as a child, or a child as Vatel, foreshadowing his destiny, anticipating greatness and sacrifice, drawing upon hagiographical and martyrological [End Page 52]

Figure 2. Anonymous, Les premières armes de Vatel (c. 1880–1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author's collection.
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Figure 2.

Anonymous, Les premières armes de Vatel (c. 1880–1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author's collection.

traditions, transmuted in a contemporary, secular vein, as in the popular genre of enfants illustres or enfants célèbres, likewise targeting a sympathetic juvenile audience. They also belong to a broader iconography and mythology of the marmiton, the young kitchen apprentice, at once the great chef's seeming antithesis and anticipation, his opposite and origin.18 In Les premières armes de Vatel (Figure 2), for example, a steep staircase in the background leads down to a darkened antechamber, with more stairs in shadow continuing to the foregrounded kitchen, signaling its basement location, a humble, domestic realm, a confined, carceral space of servitude, where the banister seems to bar the doorway and the aspiring cook labors to prove himself, while also leaning into the double frame drawn by the kitchen threshold and staircase doorway, as stairs likewise point upward, toward greater heights to which a talented culinarian might aspire. Culinary apprentices or marmitons began their training, however, with menial tasks like peeling, plucking, and polishing. Accordingly, young Vatel buffs a copper pot, while on the floor lie vegetables to peel and trim, a reminder as well of lowly culinary creation from perishable material. On a nearby table, a bespattered saucepan suggests his inexperience, in contrast to the chef who stirs the contents of a glistening [End Page 53] saucepan, modeling professional mastery. Meanwhile, young Vatel holds the oversized copper vessel against his torso, polishing metal with his right, his sword hand, gestures that portend the gleaming weapon run repeatedly through his midsection, with his red tunic anticipating his suicide's sacrificial blood. So too the one actual blade here, the chef's knife upon his hip, points down menacingly, as if stabbing the boy in the back.19 The term "armes" in the illustration's title thus cuts both ways, anticipating the sharp instrument of Vatel's martyrdom and the batterie de cuisine of his own, eventual, professional kitchen. As for emulation, young Vatel strives to become his own grownup self, and might also furnish a model to inspire present-day children, but not collectors of this card, whose parents' regular patronage of a Parisian department store indicates a higher social status, incompatible with that of the humble culinary profession. Instead, advertising copy on back, directed at parents, highlights the "COMPTOIR D'ARTICLES DE MÉNAGE," leading with the "BATTERIE DE CUISINE," in an appeal to homemakers who aspire to cook like great chefs, by purchasing professional quality wares ("Ces ARTICLES de 1re qualité sont VENDUS 30% meilleur marché que dans les Maisons spéciales"). This scheme would flourish in the twentieth century and become a mainstay of a burgeoning culinary celebrity culture, with top chefs peddling kitchen tips and equipment to a largely female audience, eager to emulate, or at least buy into, the great man's panache and savoir-faire, as in a telling mise en scène of pioneering TV chef Raymond Oliver flogging an Auer brand household stove at his venerable 3-star restaurant, Le Grand Véfour, while a well-dressed woman observes in wonder.20

A leading Parisian restaurant supply firm likewise used Vatel to woo their clientele—not amateurs, but culinary professionals. This Au grand Vatel catalog cover features its namesake in distress, right before his suicide (Figure 3). The image underscores his mortality and impending doom, interwoven with the ephemeral material of culinary creation. Fowl and game carcasses on the floor offer a metonymy of death and impermanence all the more urgent as Vatel advances toward them, while the scene at far left, presumably of the late seafood delivery, also links culinary art's contingency with the chef's imminent demise. Game likewise suggests Ancien Régime aristocratic privilege, as does Vatel's sword, set for action, like Chekhov's loaded rifle, the hilt tucked in at waist level, as if already piercing his abdomen. Against the rear wall, dressed fowl roast in a roaring fireplace, their insides run through on spits as Vatel too would soon be impaled, skewers pointing toward his heart and stomach, as if also already entering his body. And, with flesh licked by punishing flames, inside an architectonic frame that Vatel appears to enter, there is perhaps [End Page 54]

Figure 3. Anonymous, Au grand Vatel (c. 1914), restaurant supply catalog cover. Author's collection.
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Figure 3.

Anonymous, Au grand Vatel (c. 1914), restaurant supply catalog cover. Author's collection.

[End Page 55]

Figure 4. Anonymous, Au grand Vatel (1912), invoice on letterhead. Author's collection.
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Figure 4.

Anonymous, Au grand Vatel (1912), invoice on letterhead. Author's collection.

a vision of the suicide's infernal damnation—a portrait of perdition—consonant with conventional Catholic views, and Vatel's anticipatory despair.

As in Les premières armes, stairs at back lead down to the kitchen, but also upward, toward greater heights, while multiple allusions intimate Vatel's death, and marmitons again embody the future with promise and foreboding, looking up to the great man, literally and figuratively, as a professional paragon to emulate. Vatel inspires future Vatels, begetting successors, copies generated from this formidable if flawed original, in a mise en abyme of Vatel effigies produced and reproduced within late nineteenth-century popular culture. Inside the catalog, we also find items that echo suggestively the cover illustration: chefs' garb, including aprons like Vatel's; no swords, but plenty of big, sharp knives; various large skewers, and even a copper bowl like the one polished by the nearest marmiton, like props for a contemporary mise en scène of this episode, a modern dress version of the period drama, with present and past linked from the outset by the emphatically [End Page 56]

Figure 5. A. Bergeret et Cie, Nos petits gâte-sauce. Les petits Vatel en route pour la cuisine (1903), postcard. Author's collection.
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Figure 5.

A. Bergeret et Cie, Nos petits gâte-sauce. Les petits Vatel en route pour la cuisine (1903), postcard. Author's collection.

modern, art nouveau frame round this historicizing, self-consciously Ancien Régime vignette.

The company's letterhead likewise negotiates between present and past, featuring instead an image of modernity within traditionalist trappings (Figure 4). An old-fashioned shield displays one of the firm's latest, signature vestes de cuisine, topped by a chef's hat. Evoking triumph and doom, a palm branch of success runs behind or through the shield, implicitly traversing the chef's torso inside the jacket, like Vatel's sword thrust into his body. Below, the caption "Forme Moderne" indicates that, despite the antiquated setting, Au grand Vatel purveys up-to-date merchandise. With this empty uniform, the shield frames a headless portrait, an invitation for would-be Vatels to don the outfit and complete the picture, posing as latter-day incarnations of their great predecessor, embodying French culinary excellence in a modern form.

Elsewhere, however, the period's visual culture frames less flattering visions of the contemporary Vatel. While leading French chefs like Escoffier were inevitably male, adult, white, serious, and supposedly omnicompetent, humorous "Vatel" effigies offer whimsical alternatives, like a buffoonish character labeled M. VATEL, who appears in a series of bust-length photographic portraits, depicting the same comical cook figure in different moods, conveyed by subtitles and facial expressions; or, a Vatel marocain, with its [End Page 57] racist overtones and colonialist condescension. We will focus though on a postcard that appears to feature three little girls, in chef's uniforms, kitchen equipment in hand (Figure 5). Produced by Bergeret, the same prolific publisher of the M. Vatel series,21 this card shares its aesthetic, including the flou of a generic studio backdrop, lending a likewise staged look. Here, reference to "petits Vatel," like the phrase "en route pour la cuisine" or the procession forward, suggests evolution toward the kitchen and a glorious career therein. But details of their procession, like the obstacle of the subjects' gender, preclude such a triumph, for girls could at best become domestic cooks and not the next Escoffier. From left to right, the figures become shorter, younger, more feminine in demeanor, less assured in attitude, and, we infer, less fit for the job. They march not in evolution but in devolution, ever further from the ideal embodied by their supposed model, the great Vatel. At least this is how the scene appears in light of the processions toward glory in Nadar's influential Panthéon, or in its gastronomic and culinary counterpart, Henriot's Galerie des gastronomes et praticiens français, to which we will return shortly. However, within the context of nascent consumer culture, we could also see in this card homemakers in training, posing with professional-grade kitchenware to buy, and marching toward an aspirational if unattainable ideal of Vatel-inspired culinary distinction, anticipating home cooks today emulating yet never equaling revered celebrity chefs.

Rendering greatness?

In the decades preceding the Third Republic, particularly in culinary contexts, we find references to more prestigious portraits of Vatel, in oil or in sculpture. Entertaining the idea of such tributes only to dismiss these as impossible, they recognize chefs' status shifting upward, while still falling short.

Dudley Costello's serial novel Adrien Leroux; or, the Adventures of a Courier (1847–1848) reflects the author's extensive knowledge of Gallic culture and cuisine, gleaned from years in France. At the apartment of Félix Chassepot, chef at the Hôtel de la Poste in Orléans, protagonist Leroux encounters a "picture-gallery" of noted culinarians with, in a place of honor "over the fireplace," a portrait "painted by a very eminent person, Monsieur Girodet," depicting "the celebrated man, the martyr to our cause, the Jean Jacques of the cuisine, the sensitive Vatel."22 Leroux views the work less favorably than Chassepot, however, their competing descriptions and interpretations composing a twofold literary portrait of Vatel. Chassepot sees in his "anxious countenance" a delicate romantic hero, an exalted culinary martyr, while Leroux desublimates the image, inferring "a severe attack of stomachache" [End Page 58] from its "ghastly aspect," removing Vatel from the heroic spheres of honor and sacrifice to the lowly realms of ingestion and indigestion, traditionally associated with cooks and cooking. Chassepot's view is no doubt colored by his knowledge of Vatel's fate, notably Sévigné's version thereof, to which he alludes. And he does what he claims the portraitist has done, "invest[ing] the features with all the sublime agony of the moment," the climactic moment in the Sévigné-inspired legend. Leroux, however, unfamiliar with this "tragical history," instead projects onto the likeness commonplaces about the cook as base, comical character (Costello 56). Their divergent takes on the portrait set conventional denigration of the chef against a flattering vision, heroic though largely still aspirational, as evidenced by the humorous figure of Chassepot and his fanciful culinary pantheon. A variant moreover of the ancestor portrait gallery—a common motif in nineteenth-century European literature23—Chassepot's collection traces not a blood line but a culinary pedigree, a whole lineage to emulate. Of course, the novel, gallery, and Vatel portrait are all fictional constructs, with Leroux's suggestion that his friend's "vivid imagination discovered things which were not" offering a mise en abyme of this whole imaginary enterprise. A provincial chef at the time would not have quarters spacious enough for a gallery, nor means to possess a Girodet. Oil portraits of chefs were rare, with Charles Auguste de Steuben's of Carême (before 1833) a notable exception. Despite numerous canvases of other once-faceless, rediscovered, and elaborately imagined hero-ancestors like Vercingétorix, Clovis or Jeanne d'Arc, the period saw none of Vatel. Chassepot also describes an intriguing, improbable provenance, a reverse intermedial transposition, with the portrait deriving from a "bad print" in an old edition of Sévigné, versus the typical transfer from prestigious originals in oil, as in marble or bronze, to popular, inexpensive, mass-produced copies like prints, and later photographs, or in the case of sculpture, plaster replicas.

The same cookery column cited above likewise celebrates Vatel as "a king amongst cooks, the greatest monarch in all Cookdom!," while lamenting that "no monuments have been erected to his memory; no portraits have handed down his features to posterity. Ungrateful Cookdom, thus to neglect the greatest of thy heroes!" (4). The author thus underscores both Vatel's worthiness for monumental commemoration and the lack of any such tribute. Along similar lines, Charles Virmaître asserts, "je ne crois pas qu'on élève jamais une statue […] aux cuisiniers ou aux pâtissiers-glaciers; Vatel, Carème [sic], Brillat-Savarin, Julien et tant d'autres n'orneront jamais nos places publiques, pas même à l'état de Fontaines-Wallace."24 Writing in a culinary trade publication and combining chefs with pâtissiers-glaciers and gastronomic writers [End Page 59]

FIGURE 6. Henriot (Henri Maigrot), La gastronomie et l'art culinaire au XIXe siècle. Galerie des gastronomes et praticiens français, de Brillat-Savarin à nos jours (1894), illustration for Chatillon-Plessis, La vie à table à la fin du XIXe siècle. Author's collection.
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Henriot (Henri Maigrot), La gastronomie et l'art culinaire au XIXe siècle. Galerie des gastronomes et praticiens français, de Brillat-Savarin à nos jours (1894), illustration for Chatillon-Plessis, La vie à table à la fin du XIXe siècle. Author's collection.

like Brillat, Virmaître foresees no public monuments for such food industry professionals.

The closest the early Third Republic would come to any sort of chef monument was however a Vatel statue, an homage at once poignant and revealingly inadequate. This story, known to us through contemporary commentary rather than direct visual evidence,25 involves a modest work and its replica. Each was wrought in impermanent material, by Nicolas Bourgoin, a chef in provincial Troyes—a real-life Chassepot—who, as a sculptor, specialized in small-scale tributes to grand figures in French food history.26

First, in the Salon of 1886, he exhibited a full-length, though likely not full-size, plaster statue, Le suicide de Vatel.27 It is not clear what happened to this statue afterward, and there is no indication the work survived, a fate consonant with the tenuousness of plaster, more provisional than monuments' usual marble or bronze. [End Page 60]

Two years later, Bourgoin produced another version, exhibited in Paris at the annual Exposition Culinaire, 80 cm high, but modeled in lard (Caliban 1), a perishable foodstuff, less solid, less enduring than even plaster, and perilously close to the corruptible human flesh that monuments sought to replace with sturdy stone or metal in framing effigies for posterity. Indeed, while statuemania raged outside the exposition hall, raising impressive and durable tributes to cultural heroes, the limitations of this short-lived little Vatel en saindoux, dismissed in the press as "cette statue adipeuse," signaled that more prestigious, public, putatively permanent homages to chefs remained untenable (Caliban 1). While it sounds odd today, lard statuary was actually a familiar practice within the food industry at the time.28 Examples range from oft naïve handiwork adorning butchers' display cases to somewhat more aesthetically ambitious pieces like Bourgoin's, which figured commonly in festive culinary displays, like the exposition's "grand buffet,"29 where his Vatel stood in the foreground, with a profusion of similarly 'artistic' works—elaborate pâtés or galantines, and full-blown Carême-style pièces montées—in the background (Figure 6).

Henriot's Galerie recalls this perspective while reversing it, as an elaborate spread graces the foreground, with a diminutive statue of Vatel in the background, impaling himself upon his sword. The statue's scale, stance, and surroundings all suggest a recreation or remembrance of Bourgoin's Suicide de Vatel, both the plaster and even more so the lard versions, from less than a decade prior. Likewise smaller than life-size, it also figures the critical moment of self-immolation apparently represented by Bourgoin (which his choice of title and contemporary descriptions seem to confirm, with Vatel "se perforant le saindoux," as one commentator noted ironically, apropos the 1888 exposition piece [Caliban 1]). Its feet surmounting a shallow pedestal, this depiction of the statue perches upon a balustrade at the edge of an elevated terrace, near the composition's upper righthand corner, with Bourgoin himself atop the stairs leading toward this raised patio, toward what remained his best-known work, so suggestively installed there. Moreover, with a decorative buffet up front and a crowd of gastronomes and chefs milling about, the print places the little Vatel statue in a culinary exposition of sorts, reminiscent of the 1888 edition where Bourgoin's plaster was reincarnated in lard, rehearsing this reappearance in graphic form.

Henriot's Vatel is all the more likely patterned after Bourgoin's since the other pre-nineteenth-century ancestors in the composition, Renaissance author Rabelais and medieval cook Taillevent, also appear as sculptures modeled upon statuary familiar at the time, François Truphème's Rabelais monument [End Page 61]

Figure 7. Anonymous, Liotard Frères "Lilor" Brand Broiler-Rotisserie-Oven "Le Vatel" (1927), brochure cover. Author's collection.
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Figure 7.

Anonymous, Liotard Frères "Lilor" Brand Broiler-Rotisserie-Oven "Le Vatel" (1927), brochure cover. Author's collection.

bust in Meudon (1885) and Taillevent's tombstone in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, reproduced as a frontispiece to the 1892 edition of Le viandier de Guillaume Tirel, dit Taillevent.30 Of course Rabelais was a writer, and Taillevent cut a writerly figure in this first modern edition of the Viandier, with his effigy en frontispice. Accordingly, they are commemorated like distinguished hommes de lettres at the time: these larger-than-life statues, set in the planting bed between terrace and main parterre, in what looks like a jardin public, recall so many contemporaneous monuments to so-called great men. With both these more distant precursors and early nineteenth-century figures like Brillat, Grimod, Berchoux, Cussy or Carême—long dead but seemingly alive—alongside contemporaries like Escoffier or Philéas Gilbert,31 the print is reminiscent of Chassepot's ancestor gallery, and likewise informed by a logic of emulation, with successive generations donning the mantle of French culinary and gastronomic excellence.

Similar to the statufied women in Nadar's Panthéon, the Vatel in Henriot's Galerie is an oddly equivocal representation, a prestigious precursor monumentalized in miniature, at once part of and apart from the crowd of successors. Placed upon a pedestal but set haphazardly off-center on the balustrade's pier, he surveys the procession below while relegated to an adjacent yet distinctly [End Page 62] separate space. Henriot's Vatel thus echoes ambiguities and hesitations within the broader Vatel legend, and particularly within the twin sculptural renderings upon which this figure seems modeled.

After the Great War, France's commemorative energies shifted from monuments aux grands hommes to monuments aux morts.32 But while the great man monument ideal faded, it did not vanish entirely. During the entre-deux-guerres and beyond, public homages to cultural figures continued less feverishly, along with the first, halting realization of monuments, however modest, to culinary or gastronomic figures.33 In the same vein, we find a suggestive vestige of the longstanding, long unfulfilled impulse to statufy Vatel.

In 1927, the Lilor company introduced a new compact stove, with the name "Le Vatel" emblazoned across the unit (Figure 7). Channeling this celebrated ancestor's spirit, the fire inside presumably carried the torch of his culinary genius and transmitted the sacred flame to the happy home cook. Purchasers did not just buy into Vatel's legend; they bought "Vatel," or at least a tangible tribute to him, wrought in plain or enameled cast iron—durable if not exactly monumental material.

Compared with the Oliver advertisement mentioned above, this brochure casts the chef and range as not just contiguous but consubstantial, fused in a kind of hybrid, surrealist portrait. With an optional stand providing legs for the stove's 'body,' and that topped in turn by Vatel's name in typescript in place of his face, this monument of sorts pays homage to Vatel. An intriguing exercise in culinary intermediality, blending cuisine, sculpture, graphic art, and typography, it heralds profitable new commercial strategies that would flourish in the decades ahead and extend emulation from the professional into the domestic realm. Outfitting their kitchens with just the right stuff, homemakers joined chefs in patterning themselves after culinary greatness—embodied here, however erroneously, by the illustrious Vatel.

Michael D. Garval
North Carolina State University


1. Dominique Michel, Vatel ou la naissance de la gastronomie (Paris: Fayard, 1999), 14.

2. On Carême, see Priscilla Ferguson, Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004), 49–82; and Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef (New York: Walker & Company, 2003).

3. Adeline Wrona, Face au portrait: De Sainte-Beuve à Facebook (Paris: Hermann, 2012).

4. Michael D. Garval, "A Dream of Stone": Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture (Newark: U Delaware P, 2004). June Hargrove, The Statues of Paris: An Open-air Pantheon (New York: Vendome, 1990).

5. For the latter, see Figure 7 in

6. See Réunion des Musées Nationaux, La gloire de Victor Hugo (Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1985).

7. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal de Sévigné, Lettres de Madame de Sévigné, de sa famille et de ses amis (Paris: J. J. Blaise, 1818), 2:256–58.

8. Joseph Berchoux, La gastronomie, ou l'homme des champs à table (Paris: Giguet et Michaud, 1803), 2nd ed., 75–78, 166–68 (for the note).

9. One later nineteenth-century commentator characterized Vatel ironically as "[le] Chatterton des maîtres-queux," Caliban, "Le Vatel en saindoux," Le Figaro (Feb. 27, 1888), 1.

10. Alexandre-Balthasar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, "Le disciple d'Épicure, hymne," Almanach des gourmands (1810), 170.

11. Marie-Antoine Carême, L'art de la cuisine française au XIXe siècle: Traité élémentaire et pratique (Paris: Chez l'auteur, 1833), 2:xvii.

12. Eugène Scribe and Édouard-Joseph-Ennemond Mazères, Vatel, ou le petit-fils d'un grand homme (Paris: Pollet, Libraire, 1827), 4.

13. Le gastronome: Journal universel du goût (March 14, 1830): 5.

14. "La revue gastronomique," Revue gastronomique (Oct. 1851): 5.

15. "Anecdotes of Cookery," The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, vol. 4 (May 1855–Apr. 1856): 4.

16. Furet, "Un émule de Vatel." L'Oued-Sahel: Journal politique, littéraire, commercial et agricole (November 13, 1892).

17. On chromos, see Isabeau de Rouffignac, Chromos, album d'une collection (Paris: Éditions de la Martinière, 2016); and Thierry de Vos, Chromos, les premières publicités (s.l.: Armonia, 2007).

18. On the marmiton, see my forthcoming article, "The Miserable, Mythical, Magical Marmiton," Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 45:1 (March 2019).

19. The phallic weapon, simulating sodomy, also recalls commentary at the time about sexual relations between marmitons and their elders. See Garval, "The Miserable, Mythical, Magical Marmiton."

20. This advertisement, in the collection of the Bibliothèque Forney, is marked "[Paris] Match 1960."

21. Aline Ripert and Claude Frère, La carte postale, son histoire, sa fonction sociale (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001), 50–51.

22. Dudley Costello, Esq., Adrien Leroux; or, the Adventures of a Courier. Published in serial form in New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, 80:317 (May 1847): 55–56.

23. Henk Vynckier, "'They won't hurt you': Ancestral Portrait Galleries in European Literature," Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 43:1 (March 2017): 199–226.

24. Charles Virmaître, "Le but à atteindre," L'étoile, moniteur officiel des cuisiniers, restaurateurs, limonadiers, pâtissiers et glaciers, 1:14 (10 May, 1874): 1.

25. The October 15, 1888, issue of L'art culinaire did, however, provide a belated engraving of Le suicide de Vatel par M. Bourgoin (Troyes), drawn by Gérard-Tantet, and identified as having received the Diplôme d'honneur (cuisine) at the Concours culinaire de Paris 1888. The December 15, 1892, and April 15, 1893, issues of the same publication offered another rendering of Vatel impaling himself upon his sword, drawn by the sculptor's son, A. Bourgoin. In these images, Vatel's pose is almost identical to that in Henriot's Galerie des gastronomes et praticiens (see below).

26. Known for busts of chefs Carême and Albert Chevallier, and of Nicolas Appert, inventor of canning, Bourgoin donated his original portraits of Carême and Appert to the Académie de cuisine, but sold reproductions in plaster or terra cotta, for 15 and 20 francs respectively. See Le journal des confiseurs-glaciers, chocolatiers, fabricants de confitures, conserves, fruits confits, sirops, liqueurs. Organe professionnel illustré (March 1, 1893): 26.

27. In the Salon catalogue, the work is listed simply as "Le suicide de Vatel;—statue, plâtre." See Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants exposés au Palais des Champs-Élysées le 1er mai 1886 (Paris: Société d'imprimerie et librairie administratives et classiques Paul Dupont, 1886), 297.

28. On lard sculpture, see "Il n'y a pas de sot métier: Professions étranges et bizarres industries parisiennes," Lectures pour tous: Revue universelle populaire et illustrée (May 1904): 727–28; and Henri Coupin, "Les arts excentriques: Les chefs d'œuvre en saindoux," La revue des revues XXV (April 1898): 33–41.

29. "Faits divers," Le temps (Feb. 20, 1888): 3.

30. On Truphème's Rabelais, see For the 1892 edition of Taillevent's Viandier, see

31. Gilbert, both a chef and a frequent contributor to trade publications, defended Bourgoin's statue against Caliban's attack, seen as an attack against the whole culinary profession. See Philéas Gilbert, "À propos du Vatel en saindoux: À Caliban du Figaro," Le progrès des cuisiniers (March 15, 1888).

32. See Daniel J. Sherman, The Construction of Memory in Interwar France (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999); and Annette Becker, Les monuments aux morts: Mémoire de la Grande Guerre (Arles: Éditions Errance, 1991).

33. Michael D. Garval, "Bocuse and Beyond," Contemporary French Civilization, 42:3–4 (Winter 2017): 347–72.

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