It’s been a couple of weeks since stacks of boxes stuffed with succulent strawberries started appearing on the shelves at our local supermarket, so I’m going to get all fruity on you today. Now, who delights to bite into a big, fat strawberry now and then? Lots of us it seems: 94% of US households eat them and over 50% of seven to nine-year-olds have strawberries as their favorite fruit. It’s a good thing we guzzle them so greedily too: they’re a low fat, low calorie treat that’s high in vitamin C, fiber, folic acid and potassium.
For your delectation, I’ve gathered some tantalizing strawberry trivia. It turns out they get their name from the long-time practice of packing the fruit in straw. The ancient Romans seem to have believed that strawberries held the cure to most physical woes, including melancholy, fainting, fevers, inflammations, throat infections, kidney stones, bad breath, gout, and diseases of the blood, liver and spleen. Medieval masons carved strawberry designs onto altars and around the tops of pillars in churches and cathedrals, to symbolize perfection and righteousness. And Madame Tallien, who was a prominent figure at the court of Emperor Napoleon, was famous for actually bathing in the juice and pitted pulp of fresh strawberries, using 22 pounds per basin. We’re still unsure if she washed every day.
But today’s picture is my best stab at a proper strawberry tribute: it’s called The Strawberry Girl (c. 1830) and is by the American painter Ammi Phillips (1788 – 1865). Phillips is an interesting one: in a career that spanned 50 years, he may have produced around 2,000 portraits. The thing is, his style was so drastically divergent over the years, that his works were thought to be by several different artists: now about 500 paintings are fully attributed to him. Unusually for an untrained portraitist, Phillips sustained himself with his vocation. Though he and his family had to travel extensively along the East coast, he enjoyed a steady flow of work.
The Strawberry Girl follows the most familiar Phillips format of a plain background and strongly contrasting light and dark elements. And even though she’s somewhat stiffly articulated, how utterly adorable is this little girl? Her face is nicely painted, with filled in, flushed cheeks, a delicate rosebud mouth and a dimple sitting on her chin. There’s certainly a measure of expression there and some level of intensity in the gaze.
But it’s all about the dress for me, which is also the thing that reveals the artist’s interests. The fact that Phillips took such care over clothing suggests the influence of an academic painter from Albany called Ezra Ames (1768 – 1836), who lavished attention on garments in his portraits of women. Here, the detailing at the base of the skirts adds texture and finesse. The folding red waist sash and tasseled strings darting nimbly at her shoulders add vibrancy. The bouncing cap sleeves and bonnet rim, all quivering lightness and feathery froth, add the energy and movement that the little girl lacks. And just look at the main bit of that bonnet: it’s sheer, white and dotted in detail. It’s this that visually binds with the red-ripe and white strawberries in the girl’s hands: the studded bonnet starts to look like the side of a strawberry, with its tiny seeds all over the outside.
For me, this small, unassuming picture of a small, unassuming girl captures all the sweetness, freshness and delight we associate with a strawberry. This painterly vision has me dreaming of strawberries and cream. And so my question, kind readers: what’s your favourite way to eat strawberries?