Van Utrecht’s picture takes us back four centuries, to a time when abundance was new and not to be taken for granted. He knew it was hard to get that lobster. Europeans of his era were amazed (as we still should be) that human beings can arrange the world in such a way as to make possible so bounteous a feast. They knew that marshes had to be drained and cattle fed through the winter, and they were impressed that lemons could reach a northern table. Perhaps these very fruits were carried by donkey from the Neapolitan hills down to the harbor, onto leaky wooden ships that braved storms and struggled with unreliable winds.
People of that day felt the beauty of trade and understood how easily it could be disrupted by blockades or war. Every pleasure of the table was sending money around Europe—a force for peace and prosperity. The picture remembers all this effort and celebrates it.
Today we are so afraid of greed that we forget how honorable the love of material things can be. In the 17th century, homage was still paid to the nobility of commerce—a concept that boredom and guilt have made less accessible to us. Perhaps we can learn from this picture. A good response to consumerism might be not to sacrifice these pleasures and live without lobster and lemons but to appreciate what really goes into providing them.
Our desire to have luxury cheaply is the real problem. If the route to your table were dignified and ethical at every stage, a lemon would cost more, of course. But maybe then we’d stop taking lemons for granted and find their zest all the keener.
Art for Life’s Sake — Alain de Botton, Wall Street Jounal