Bite of the Apple

One week ago I was tasked with the baking of an apple pie. Simple, you might assume. But there was a hungry Thanksgiving horde with high expectations and nothing’s quite as disappointing as poor pastry. Flaccid or too-floury crust, too-tart or tangy apples, sugar on the high or low side… people, these are the perennial fears of the pie-maker. Especially in this country, where in one year I’ve unearthed endless apple pie idioms that tell how deeply embedded this delightful dessert is in the national psyche. As American as apple pie = quintessentially American. In apple pie order = in very good order, or very well organized.

So it was with the weight of this country’s pie-high hopes hovering over me that I set about peeling, coring, slicing, dicing, sprinkling, crumbling, rolling, cajoling and waiting anxiously at the oven as my improbable mound of crust-cloaked Macintoshes melted and hissed in the heat. Thankfully, everyone had filled up on a fantastic main meal before the dessert got dished, but some smiles and appreciative grunts let me know that for this year at least I hadn’t upset the apple cart.

Today’s picture has long been the apple of my eye at the NGA (I’ll warn you now: I can keep going with the apple puns). This formidable nine-foot-long painting shows The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (1791) and is by Benjamin West (1738 – 1820). Often described as the “Father of American Painting”, West was the most celebrated historical painter of his day, and the first from his country to gain an international reputation. In fact in 1863 he settled in London, where he remained for the rest of his life. This work was intended as one in a series to decorate the Royal Chapel at Windsor Castle (the overall project was abandoned when George III canceled it in 1801).

Of course it’s the apple offering the tie-in here, but this explosive moment follows after Eve’s fateful enticement of Adam to take a bite of the apple from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here Archangel Michael acts as the agent of the Lord’s wrath, backed up by a piercing beam (the “flaming sword” mentioned in the book of Genesis). The sinners cling to one another and have been slung-about with fur robes so that they can stand unashamed in the presence of God.

West’s treatment of this seminal scene preempts the English Romantic movement: witness the dramatic gestures from all three protagonists, the delirious differences in light and shade and the rich paint application on the canvas. It’s all so gargantuan and gloriously over-the-top, I can almost hear West whispering: How about them apples?