Pierre Laszlo's Citrus: A History is an uneven book, slueing from one topic to another in a sometimes dizzying way. He revisits his childhood in wartime Grenoble, France, and moves among Chinese, Arab, Jewish, Spanish, Italian, Californian, Brazilian histories. He gives both recipes for dishes like tarte au citron and detailed analysis of the chemistry of orange peel. He analyzes a number of poems and paintings, and then goes back to questions of horticulture.
In my final impression of the book, I feel that he includes a great deal of interesting material. While the weakest section of the book is his effort to interpret a number of poems, I really liked his section on painting. Here are a few more paintings with related quotes from the book:
Laszlo finds that there is "new logic at work in this 1916 painting. The bowl of oranges has dropped from all-important subject to mere pretext. The painting is calling attention to itself. The subject of the composition is the composition itself.... The painting by Zurbaran, as we saw, aimed at religious emotion. ... In the obverse paradox, the Matisse painting of oranges jettisons traditional rules of representation. In so doing it achieves a fullness of emotion.
This emotion came from Matisse's passion for oranges. The sight of them caused small daily epiphanies. Oranges were portents of joy, of the beauty in life."
"One of the proudest moments in Matisse's professional life was when Picasso in 1945 purchased his 1912 Still Life with a Basket of Oranges. This gave such pleasure to Matisse that henceforth, on New Year's Day, he would have a basket of oranges sent to his friend and great rival." And today, Matisse's painting is owned by the Musee Picasso in Paris.
Laszlo writes about the late 19th century painters: "The Impressionists were responsible for the resurrection of citrus fruits as objects worthy of depiction. Paul Cezanne, of the legendary apples, would often include oranges in his still lifes. With him, the interest shifted to the light and the forms, away from the texture and the naturalistic details that he seventeenth-century Dutch painters had been so keen on. Vincent van Gogh, with his fascination with the color yellow -- which some have blamed on absinthe and some on the professional disease of pica, which makes the sufferer crave camphor and turpentine -- included lemons in his still lifes, such as Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Blue Gloves."
I say: what a pity, to reduce the genius of Van Gogh to a diagnosis, rather than to see him as transcending illness with art. But that's my opinion.
And to top off my opinion, here is a masterpiece that illuminates the symbolism of citrus (along with other symbols such as the bunch of coral above the Virgin's head and the Mandela) in the early Renaissance -- a work painted prior to any that Laszlo discusses. Below is Mantegna's Madonna of the Victories, along with a detail from the painting. It dates from 1496, when citrus culture was relatively new, though well known to Mangna's employers in Mantua, Italy, especially to Isabella d'Este, wife of the Marquis. I wonder how Laszlo missed this.