By Randy Jackson
I was interested to see a recent news story about a restored fresco from Pompeii depicting what the headline billed as an early version of pizza. The fresco shows a flatbread with toppings believed to include pomegranates, dates, and a type of pesto sauce. But what attracted my attention was not an interest in the history of pizza, or even the fascinating discoveries of daily Roman life frozen in time at 79 CE, but our ongoing interest in depicting food in art.
I trace this curiosity to a much younger version of myself wandering around art museums in Europe, and pondering why there were so many paintings of bowls of fruit. What, I wondered, was so great about that? In an attempt to answer that, and to hopefully develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of still-life painting, it helps to have some historical context of food in art.
The Meaning of Food in Art
When food is represented in any human artwork, it always conveys, or intends to convey, some meaning. Some of the earliest depictions of food appear in the Egyptian pyramids. These drawings were thought to hold magical properties that could enable the deceased to have food in the afterlife. Food as sustenance, and in the afterlife, you gotta eat, right?
Centuries later, the ancient Greeks and Romans painted food in their frescos of celebrations. Here, food was portrayed as symbols of wealth and abundance. One thing the Pompeii flatbread painting has taught us is that good quality food was not reserved solely for the elites. The everydayness of the meal, portrayed in the fresco of a house attached to a bakery in Pompeii, demonstrates that a much wider group than the elite enjoyed their meals, and had access to foods prepared, at least in part, for the pleasure of eating.
As European civilizations moved through the Middle Ages, the depictions of food in art no longer reflected food as celebratory, but rather as one of the regular features of daily life. Paintings of the period often showed food preparations for meals and feasts. Christianity was of course a central force running through the Middle Ages and food is an important symbol of devotional Christian practice (bread = the body, wine = the blood of Christ). Probably the best examples of this, in art, were the paintings of the Last Supper, where fish or lamb (both symbols of Christ) were conveyed along with wine and bread.
As European society gradually emerged into the Renaissance, food in art began to represent abundance. There was also a movement in paintings towards detailed realism. Scenes of butcher shops and kitchens (notably in the Italian Baroque) were common, although food did not yet serve as the centerpiece of a painting, often being shown as part of busy crowded scenes in the paintings of the time.
But the attention to detail for everything in the paintings, including the food, was greatly elevated from earlier paintings of the Middle Ages. While food remained a secular object, it was rarely painted without some Christian symbolism.
An interesting side note on food in art in the Renaissance is seen in the work of Italian painter Giuseppi Arcimboldo (1526-93). Arcimboldo’s work is recognizable today for its creative genius – he painted portraits entirely from fruits and vegetables. These food portraits were only part of Arcimboldo’s more conventional body of work; the portraits were understood to be for the amusement of the court (he was a painter for the Habsburg court in Vienna). Arcimboldo’s other paintings, including his religious paintings, have largely been forgotten in the context of better-known Renaissance paintings.
Food in Art in the Dutch Golden Age
The movement towards naturalism and detailed personal observation emerging in Renaissance art provided the underpinning for still-life genre paintings to emerge, culminating in the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600s.
The Dutch Golden Age is thought to cover a good portion of the 17th century. Spurred on by the wealth of overseas trade, the Netherlands emerged to lead Europe in the arts and sciences. Of note in this flourishing is the Dutch Reform movement that shifted the Netherlands away from Catholic-dominated Europe, which then led to independence from the Church in intellectual life, commerce, and the arts. In the Dutch Golden Age, wealth was largely held by the merchant class. As a result, decisions in all aspects of society reflected perspectives and interests different from those of the elites, royalty, or the church, which still shaped most of the rest of Europe. It was the wealthy merchant class who commissioned works of art. This, along with the Renaissance movement towards naturalism and observation of details, motivated Dutch artists to create the genre of still-life paintings.
Dead Game, Red Lobsters, and Bowls of Fruit
To my own youthful question about what is so great about paintings of bowls of fruit, the answer, somewhat clearer from the passing of years, is that attention to detail is a deepening of awareness. Artists can bring a greater awareness to us, the viewer, through their attention to detail and the reproduction of that detail on canvas of texture, light, shadows, and hues. This can, if we apply our own attention to the painting, bring a sense of marvel. Articulating many aspects of the beauty of Food in Art, I recommend the New York Times article titled “A Messy Table, A Map of the World” – an amazingly entertaining tutorial in understanding the social history of art.