A Brief History of Food in European Art

From the Romans' terrible table manners to flirtatious fruit

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.

Fresco Depicting a Woman (Maenad?) Holding a Dish; Peacock and Fruit Below, 1st century (Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)

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!

The Feast of Dives, Master of James IV of Scotland, about 1510 - 1520 (Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)
Detail from The Feast of Dives, Master of James IV of Scotland, about 1510 - 1520 (Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)

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?!

Maren de Vos, The Last Supper, mid- to late- sixteenth century (Collection: The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

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!

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Rudolf II of Habsburg as Vertumnus, 1590 (Collection: Skokloster Castle)

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!

Pieter Aertsen, Market Scene, 1569 (Collection: Hallwyl Museum)

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)!

Andries Benedettifirst, A Pronk Still Life with Fruit, Oysters, and Lobsters, first half of the 1640s (Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

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.

The Milkmaid, around 1660, Johannes Vermeer (Collection: Rijksmuseum)
Detail of The Milkmaid, around 1660, Johannes Vermeer (Collection: Rijksmuseum)

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!

Enjoying Coffee, French School, First half of the 18th century (Collection: Pera Museum)

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!

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1895-1898 (Collection: MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art)

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.

Maybe all those pictures of food on Instagram will push the next boundaries of what food means to us today?

Story by Maude Bass-Krueger
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