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The Art of JAMA |

Mound of Butter Antoine Vollon

Thomas B. Cole, MD, MPH
JAMA. 2014;312(20):2076-2077. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279839.
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At room temperature, butter softens to the spreadable consistency of fresh paint, and then it can be sculpted, pressed into a mold, or smoothed with a wooden spatula, as in Mound of Butter by the 19th-century French painter Antoine Vollon (1875-1885). In this image the marks of the painter, etched into a slab of impasto, are read as scrapes and swirls made by the spatula. The picture looks as though it could have been painted with butter, and perhaps it was—Vollon was known to have mixed pigments with whatever materials were at hand. At the time of this painting, butter was still made by hand on small farms from cow’s milk collected over several days. The deep yellow color of this batch of butter suggests that it was tinted with the pigment carotene from plants in the pasture where the cows grazed. After milking, pails of collected cream were allowed to age until the cream slightly soured, producing the characteristic flavor of European “cultured” butter. The cream was then agitated to shake out the butter in tiny lumps, which were kneaded by hand or worked with a spatula to express the milk. Rinsing milk from the butter prolonged its shelf life, since milk turns rancid more quickly than fat. After the butter was sufficiently worked, it was wrapped in cheesecloth and stored in a cool place. In the painting, the mound’s wrapping is in dishabille, falling loosely over a pair of tipsy eggs.

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Antoine Vollon (1833-1900), Mound of Butter, 1875-1885, French. Oil on canvas. 50.2 × 61 cm. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art (http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb.html),Washington, DC; Chester Dale Fund, 1992.95.1.

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