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What art history tells us about the current #foodporn fad (hint: It's nothing new)

A detail from "The Prayer Before The Meal" by Jan Steen (1626-1679)
A detail from "The Prayer Before The Meal" by Jan Steen (1626-1679)

The current fad of capturing and displaying images of our most indulgent meals so that others will ooh and aww over them is not, apparently, a new phenomenon.

Long before Instagram — indeed, long before photography of any kind — artists were depicting meals in paintings. And, as a new analysis of 500 years of paintings from Western Europe and the United States reveals, the food shown on those canvases often says more about the aspirations of the artist or the family that commissioned the artwork — their desire to brag — than about their actual everyday eating habits.

Furthermore, the paintings frequently featured food that was anything but healthy — much like the #foodporn posted to social media today.

“Crazy meals involving less-than-healthy foods aren’t a modern craving,” explains Brian Wansink, the study’s lead author and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, in a released statement. “Paintings from what’s sometimes called the Renaissance Period were loaded with the foods modern diets warn us about — salt, sausages, bread and more bread.”

Focusing on family meals

For the study, published in the July-September issue of the journal Sage Open, Wansink and his colleagues began with 750 of the most popular food-related paintings from five artistically prolific Western countries (the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany and the United States) between the years 1500 to 2000.

They then narrowed down those paintings to a group of 140 that focused only on small family meals (four or fewer table settings).

An analysis of the food depicted in those 140 paintings identified 91 different types of food from five basic food groups — fruits, vegetables, dairy (cheese, butter and milk), grains (bread, crackers, pastries) and protein (meat, fish and shellfish). 

The food group that appears most frequently is fruit (in 76 percent of the paintings), followed by bread (42 percent), fruit (39 percent), dairy (21 percent) and vegetables (19 percent). 

Uncommon choices

Interestingly, however, the most frequently depicted foods within those groups were not the ones most likely to appear on family dinner tables — even those in wealthy homes — at the time the paintings were created.

For example, the chief sources of protein consumed by middle- to upperclass families through all the art periods in this analysis would have been fowl or game, such as chicken or quail. Yet, most of the meat appearing in the paintings is either shellfish or fish.

Similarly, the vegetable that shows up most often in the paintings is the artichoke (5 percent), while the most commonly depicted fruit is the lemon (30 percent). For much of the past 500 years, both of those foods would have been considered too exotic — and expensive — to appear regularly on ordinary folks’ tables.

“It is understandable that Dutch paintings featured large amounts of seafood, because more than 50% of the border of the Netherlands is surrounded by water, and the majority of its population lives within 100 km of the sea,” Wansink and his co-authors write.  “But for Germany — a country that has much more limited access to water — it is notable that 30% of its paintings still feature seafood.” 

As for the choices regarding fruits and vegetables, the study’s authors note the following:

Some fruits or vegetables might be painted as they are aesthetically pleasing because of their color or shape or as they are more challenging to paint. While this might explain why an artful artichoke was commonly painted across countries, it does not explain why another fruit or vegetable would be much more commonly painted in one country than another.

For instance, the complexity of depicting a lemon’s surface texture, color, and juicy interior would explain its general popularity among artists — among Dutch painters, painting lemons correctly was something of a test of skill. But other factors, such as increased availability (despite a continued costliness in the market, to be sure), might in part explain the lemon’s exaggerated appeal in the Dutch paintings. At a time when the Netherlands was enjoying an “embarrassment of riches” through its shipping and import activities, an exotic citrus fruit like the lemon underscored Dutch dominance in trade.

In other words, the food depicted in these works of art often reflected the aspirations — either personal or national — of its painter or its patrons. Depicting seafood, for example, was “a way of showing one’s familiarity with travel or an appreciation for the larger world,” Wansink and his co-authors explain. In the Netherlands, lobsters in particular stood “as symbols of wealth or its fleeting nature,” they add.

Particular foods had other symbolic meanings now mostly forgotten. “The ability of lobsters to scuttle forward and backward reminded views of the instability of life,” the study’s authors point out, “[and their] practice of molting their shells during growth stages was associated with the idea of renewal, and therefore specifically linked to the resurrection of Christ.”

‘Nothing new’

Over time — particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries — paintings depicting family meals appear to have become “less aspirational and simply more celebratory,” say the researchers.

Still, the meals shown in such paintings often featured indulgences, such as sugar and difficult-to-obtain (in some countries) fruits and nuts — just as #foodporn photos today often show "decadent" high-fat entries or over-the-top sugary desserts.

“Our love affair with visually appealing, decadent, or status foods is nothing new,” said Andrew Weislogel, one of the study’s co-authors and an art curator at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, in the released statement. “It was already well-established 500 years ago.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Sage Open website.

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