No Spills, Please

Saw the Princesse de Tarente… who takes 12 cups of tea every day… which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning.

— Madame de Sévigné

Tea became such an integral part of everyday European life starting from around the 17th century that it is easy to forget the complex and lucrative trade routes that brought such luxury to middle and upper class tables. There was even the Great Tea Race of 1866, where sixteen clipper ships, meant for transporting cargo more efficiently, started in Foochow, China, and finished in London, with only ten minutes separating the winners. Tea was clearly a profitable business, as the more wealthy could boast of affording these exotic goods.

Although the Impressionists sought to capture a moment from everyday life, their subjects mostly included only people with enough economic stability to afford a life of leisure. Tea sets in these paintings were a sort of accessory that portrayed this message very clearly among the loose brushstrokes. Mary Cassatt’s Cup of Tea is the perfect example, as the delicate glove blends seamlessly into the teacup using masterful layers of translucent peach and white paint.