From the Romans' terrible table manners to contemporary consumerist coffee
Food is essential to our survival. It is also one of the great pleasures in life. It's no surprise then that fruit, vegetables, meat, and drink have been common motifs in painting and sculpture from the Roman-era until today. But there’s more to paintings of food than meets the eye. Come with us through art history to find out the meaning behind these meals...
1. Dining al fresco
Not only did the Romans enjoy eating and banqueting, but they also ascribed fruits, nuts, and grains to their gods and goddesses. Grapes were for Bacchus, god of wine, and symbolized revelry and a happy afterlife; wheat was for Ceres, goddess of grain, who embodied virtue and vice. Roman floor mosaics depicted “unswept” food (food was left on the ground after banquets and this motif was reproduced in the art!) while wall fresco painters painted food, drink, animals, and tableware in devotional and secular scenes. The careful and life-like painting of food was a way for painters to show off their artistic skill. This would remain a constant feature of still life painting throughout Western art history.
2. Gluttons in hell
Food preparation and consumption is a fact of life. It is not surprising then that we find an abundance of such images in medieval manuscripts. These pictures offer glimpses into past food cultures: they can tell us what kind of food was eaten by different social classes, how it was made, and how it was served and eaten (with forks or with fingers, for instance). Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the aristocratic table became laden with fine foods. Here, a richly-dressed family enjoys a fancy game bird, presented with its own feather on a silver platter. (You can see more silver on the sideboard).
This gluttony has a moral. Their refusal to feed a beggar (seen on the left side of the manuscript) sends the rich man straight to hell (bottom image) while the poor man ascends to heaven!
3. The most famous dinner of all
The Last Supper is probably the most frequently depicted meal in all of art history. Although the compositional focus remains Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, depictions of the fateful meal always feature symbolic bread and wine. Some theologists believe that the meal took place during Passover, in which case other foods may have been laid out on Jesus’ table, such as stewed beans, olives, dates, fruits, and nuts. Was Jesus the original proponent of the Mediterranean diet?!
4. Fruit face
Arcimboldo’s famous fruit paintings are still a bit of a mystery. Not much is known about the Italian painter, other than that he travelled to the Habsburg court in 1562 and subsequently served as court painter to three Emperors, Ferdinand I, Maximilian II and Rudolf II. Nor do we know why he began painting his signature portraits of the Emperors with faces composed from fruit. But these paintings are definitely imperial allegories: here, Rudolph II is assimilated as Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons and growth. The wonderful variety of fruit and vegetables shows that an abundant era had returned!
5. Sexy fruit (before the eggplant emoji 🍆 )
Paintings of fruit were not always about religion, virtue, and abundance. Sometimes they were decidedly erotic! Here, a woman bends down to cut a cabbage (a symbol of female sexuality), suggestively eyeing up the viewer. The man holds a large carrot in his hand while pointing to an upright cucumber nestled between two tomatoes. No ambiguity here!
6. The food of the rich and famous
The Dutch and Flemish were masters of the Baroque still life painting genre. These paintings were meant to show off an artist’s technical mastery in depicting abundant and lavish displays of comestible wealth. Here, an enormous lobster is nestled among precious grapes; exotic citruses lay on luxurious velvet and damask fabric; and succulent oyster and whisper-thin shrimp take up the left side of the painting. There is no doubt that this is a feast fit for a king (or a very wealthy Dutch trader)!
7. Rich colors, common foods
Vermeer took a different route than his Dutch contemporaries: he used expensive pigments, rich colors, and exceptional lighting to paint the most common of foods--milk and bread. In a twist of artistic fate, this simple scene has become more iconic than the lavish feasts of his fellow painters. Zoom closely to see the tiny dots of paint Vermeer painted on the bread-rolls in order to suggest the reflection of light.
8. Coffee art
Europeans discovered exotic spices and drinks such as coffee, chocolate, and tea thanks to 17th- and 18th-century global trade networks. This painting of an Ottoman woman drinking coffee was painted by a French artist in the first half of the 18th century, who copied the images from a 17th century book of a Dutch traveler.
This genre of painting, called Turquerie, showed Western fascination with all aspects of Turkish culture. Think hipsters are snobbish about their coffee shops today? In the 17th and 18th century they were the center of public life!
9. Eating with Cezanne
The small-scale domestic scenes of still life paintings were considered the least interesting of topics by the 19th-century French Royal Academy, but Cezanne proved that this modest genre could advance ideas in modern painting. Cezanne painted a whole series of still life pictures of fruits during the 1870s. These paintings represent a highlight of his career and an evolution in his painting style from the light-filled, representational paintings of the Impressionists to the more muted tones, abstracted forms, and distorted perspectives of the Modernists and Cubists. Here, the edges of the fruit bowl are hard to define and the perspective is all wonky: the right side of the corner tilts forward while the glass tilts left!
10. Consumer culture
Inaugurated by Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell's Soup series, food and drink has played a pivotal role in modern art. Often seen as a critique on consumerism and consumer culture, images featuring mass-produced food have been a mainstay of contemporary artists around the world. Here, the Korean artist Nanda juxtaposes elements of traditional Korean culture with a coffee mug from the Coffee Bean, an international coffee and tea chain.
11. The loaded history of sugar
Set within the building of the soon-to-be-demolished Domino’s sugar factory in Brooklyn, Kara Walker’s installation of a giant sphinx-like woman was made from styrofoam coated in sugar. 15 processional figures in front of the “Sugar Baby” were cast from sugar and molasses. “[I wanted] to make a piece that would complement [the Domino’s sugar factory],” Walker said, “echo it, and hopefully contain these assorted meanings about imperialism, about slavery, about the slave trade that traded sugar for bodies and bodies for sugar.” It took Walker and her team two months to make the installation.
Paintings of food often reveal something else: sometimes they are allegories for certain virtues or values, other times they emphasize eroticism, exoticism, or wealth. Modernist painters like Cezanne used the still life genre to advance ideas about what modern art could look like. Contemporary artists like Warhol, Nando, and Kara Walker have explored contemporary aspects of food culture such as globalization, imperialism, and consumerism.
Maybe all those pictures of food on Instagram will push the next boundaries of what food means to us today?