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Study of 500 Years of Still Lifes Confirms We’ve Long Had an Appetite for Exotic Foods

(all images via Cornell University's Food & Brand Lab, used under CC BY 3.0 US license)
(image via Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, used under CC BY 3.0 US license)

The Dutch loved painting lemons; Italians, oranges and pears. Meanwhile, artists from the US and France were the most likely to incorporate the humble cracker into their canvases. These are among the results of 500 Years of #FoodPorn, a new study published by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and authored by the lab’s director, Brian Wansink, and fellow researchers Anupama Mukund and Andrew Weislogel. As the paper’s name suggests, the team found that we’ve been drawn to depictions of particularly indulgent or exotic foods over day-to-day grub of bland appearances long before the dawn of Instagram.

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Abraham van Beijeren, “Large Still Life with Lobster” (1653) (image via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

Focusing on 140 paintings created in Western Europe and the United States between the years 1500 and 2000, the researchers found that the edibles in paintings depicted over time tend to not reflect the typical meals people enjoyed in their homes. Art, in other words, did not imitate life.

“In general, paintings tend to feature meals with foods that were either aspirational to the commissioning family, aesthetically pleasing or technically difficult for the painter, or that encoded cultural, religious, or political information for informed viewers,” the researchers write. “Care should be taken to not project food depictions in paintings as indicative of what was actually served or eaten in that country at the time.”

Common or cheaply available foodstuffs such as chicken, eggs, and squash, for instance, do not appear very frequently, while something decadent like shellfish appears in 22% of all the studied paintings. Over 50% of Dutch paintings feature crustaceans, while they appear in one-fifth of works from Germany. And while bread has become a more popular dietary option through the years, for instance, the appearance of bread in all surveyed paintings dropped by 74% over the centuries. As previously stated, the Dutch were keen on lemons, with over half the paintings from the Netherlands featuring the tropical fruit — but it was still an exotic item for most citizens.

The researchers had initially culled 750 food-related paintings from books such as Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine (a catalogue of the eponymous 2013 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition); art historian Kenneth Bendiner’s Food in Painting: From the Renaissance to the Present; and other tomes that would present them with some of the most celebrated and famous mouthwatering works. (They unfortunately do not provide a comprehensive roster of the involved works, aside from listing the Old Master paintings featured in this story.) The final 140 paintings studied all show family meals — those that would feed four or fewer people — as opposed to sprawling banquets, feasts, or more decorative arrangements such as fruit bowls. They then identified all the various foods, categorizing items as part of the five basic food groups, seasonings such as salt and sugar, and miscellaneous items like raisins and almonds. Using Chi-squared analyses, they then calculated the frequency with which individual food types appeared in paintings in each selected country and time period — which they split into the Era of European Exploration and Colonization (1500–1650); the Era of Enlightenment (1651–1850); and the Industrial and Post-Industrial Era (1851–2000).

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Still life by Pieter Claesz (1645) (image via Wikipedia)

Unsurprisingly, fruits reigned as the most popular subject, cropping up in about 75% of paintings surveyed across all time periods and regions. Bread appears in about 41%; meat, 39%; and vegetables, in just about 20%, with artichokes coming out on top as the most frequently painted. You may also not be surprised to learn that salt was the most frequently depicted seasoning, or that cheese was the most commonly illustrated dairy product (Italian painters were more drawn to fromage than the Dutch or even the French). But in many of these paintings, the centerpiece is something especially succulent, whether a gleaming shellfish or a juicy ham.

As the researchers note, the presence of exotic foods may also stem from artists’ desire to challenge themselves or prove their skill. Certain items also simply make for prettier subjects (“an exotic pineapple is more pleasing to the eye than a common cucumber,” they write). On the other hand, some paintings may exist as the result of orders from patrons who wanted to communicate great wealth. The presence of something like shellfish in a painting from a landlocked country may also reflect an artist’s wonder with the broader world. Such items may have pure symbolic value, too, representing themes such as renewal or the instability of life.

It’s naturally difficult to thoroughly explain why artists chose to depict certain foods, but the Cornell researchers bring up some very fascinating statistics. They do note that a larger pool of paintings would provide greater insight into their study of dietary habits versus the art of the time. One trend in painting seems certain, however: that depictions of food portions have increased over the years. In 2010, researchers published a study in the International Journal of Obesity in which they studied 52 representations of The Last Supper. Their findings show that the relative sizes of entrees, plates, and bread increased linearly over the past millennium, with respective jumps of 23.1%, 65.6%, and 69.2%.

Paintings of Mealtime Foods in Different Countries (
How Paintings of Mealtime Foods Are Depicted Differently in Different Countries (by Percentage; 1500–2000 CE) (image via Sage open journals) (click to enlarge)
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How Paintings of Mealtime Foods Are Depicted Differently in Different Time Periods (by Percentage; 1500–2000 CE) (image via SAGE open journals) (click to enlarge)
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How Paintings of Mealtime Indulgences and Seasonings Are Depicted Differently in Different Countries (by Percentage; 1500–2000 CE) (image via SAGE open journals) (click to enlarge)
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How Paintings of Mealtime Indulgences and Seasonings Are Depicted Differently in Different Time Periods (by Percentage; 1500–2000 CE) (image via SAGE open journals) (click to enlarge)
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Osias Beert, “Still life with oysters” (ca 1610) (image via Wikipedia)
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Jasper Geeraerts, “Still Life with Lobster” (1650–54) (image via Wikipedia)
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Still life by Pieter Claesz (1643) (image via Wikipedia)
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Still life by Pieter Claesz (1641) (image via Wikipedia)
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Osias Beert, “Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine” (ca 1620/1625) (image via Wikipedia)
Banquet still life *oil on canvas *99,5 x 120,5 cm *after 1655 *signed: AVB f
Still life by Abraham van Beijeren (ca 1655–65 (image via Wikipedia)
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