Theater & art

Frame by Frame

A feast for the eyes

HARTFORD — You sense immediately, in the presence of this hungry man, that he has his priorities straight. True, he may not have had a bath in a while. And he’s not quite trim; a little locomotion would do him no harm.

But in life, there is hygiene, health, and all-round corporeal spruceness; and then there is appetite. And if we must choose between the two, my friends: Delay us no longer. Pass the pepper, pour the carafe, two-four-six-eight . . .

Here is a post-Thanksgiving picture to savor. Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), a magnificent Spanish painter of the early Baroque, was just 22 and living in Rome when he painted it (it hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford). Anyone who has been to Rome can perhaps imagine the kind of tavern he might have used as a setting, and the brisk efficiency with which the bowl of pasta, the bread roll, the paper cone of black olives, and the flask of red wine might have been placed before him.

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The painting is one in a series of allegories of the senses Ribera painted before he moved to Naples in 1616. “Sight” shows a man holding a telescope; “Smell” shows a man with onions and garlic, and so on.

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“Taste” materializes — by touch as much as by sight — the very idea of gusto. You feel it in Ribera’s deft rendering of the silvery glint of the man’s tautly stretched and tattered shirt (Velazquez and Manet would have loved Ribera’s nonchalant touch). You register, too, the saltiness of the dark, oily olives, the toothsome crustiness of the bread roll, and the wash, the flush, the sluicing sensation of wine.

That bread roll is uncannily like a skull, which is surely no accident. Appetite, Ribera reminds us, is connected to death. His painting is, in fact, surely more about hunger than taste. (It calls to mind a saying of Ribera’s English contemporary, Sir Thomas Overbury: “Hunger is the cheapest sawce.”)

Note, also, this splendid man’s meaty fists. How do you convey ruddiness and grime, sweat and wrinkles in the same square inch, with nothing but pigment and oil? Ask Ribera. It’s all there in his model’s left hand, greedily gripping the flask.

And just look at that filthy right paw holding the slender base of the tiny glass! To go from this hard-working hand to the man’s face — such a complicated alloy of appetite and anxiety, happiness and hesitation (is he perhaps considering bypassing the insultingly small glass and lifting the flask straight to his lips?) — is to grasp something about the true nature of appetite: It accelerates. It’s faster than thought. And it doesn’t, for the most part, like witnesses.

Past Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.