Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup painting is probably the single most recognisable representation of food in art. It is one of thirty-two individual paintings of Campbell’s soup cans which Warhol first exhibited in Los Angeles in 1962, displaying them on shelves like products in a supermarket. Warhol’s transformation of a simple soup can into art is a continuation of a tradition that spans centuries; even cave paintings depicted scenes of people hunting for food. The ordinariness of food belies the many associations we make with it, such as pleasure, guilt, memories, life, greed, to name but a few. That may partly explain why food is such an enduring subject in art. It would take a book to make justice to this vast topic, but here are a few key moments.
In Western art, depictions of food were commonly found in ancient Greek and Roman paintings. They were known as xenia, from the Greek xenos, meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘guest’. Xenia are therefore interpreted as ‘presents to a guest’. The walls of a bedroom from a Roman villa at Boscoreale near Naples, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are covered in paintings dating to 50-40 BC which depict architecture and a landscape beyond. Prominent on a painted ledge next to a real window is a precious glass bowl containing luscious ripe fruit – apples, plums and peaches. The wealthy owner of the villa presented his guests not only with attractive views, but also a representation of the bountiful produce available from his estate.
In mediaeval times, food was regularly found in religious imagery, at the time the primary focus of Western art. All kinds of food acquired symbolic meanings within religious paintings, with Bible stories providing much of the source material. Some were relatively straightforward, such as wine and bread together referring to the Last Supper. Often, however, they were complex and multi-layered; they could change dramatically depending on the context. Apples, for instance, became a symbol of the Fall of Man; however, if shown being held by Jesus, they referred to his role as the Redeemer of the World. Different types of food also acted as shorthand to identify the subjects depicted. Fish were not only an early symbol of Christian baptism, but also attributes of the apostle Peter, who had been a fisherman, and of St Anthony of Padua. Finding himself on a seashore, St Anthony started preaching; though there were no people nearby, the fish in the sea pressed forward, popping their heads out of the water to hear the word of God.
Classical myths provided another fertile source of symbols for Christian imagery. The origins of the pomegranate as a Christian symbol of resurrection are from Ovid’s story of Persephone who returned to earth from the Underworld every spring. In Christian paintings, a pomegranate is often seen in depictions of the Virgin and Child. In Benvenuto di Giovanni’s Madonna and Child (c.1470), the Virgin Mary hands a pomegranate to the infant Jesus, foreshadowing his destiny.
In the sixteenth century, particularly after the Reformation, art became increasingly secular. Throughout Europe food in art became a more and more independent artistic genre in its own right. The country where this new genre found its utmost popularity and highest expression was undoubtedly The Netherlands. The seventeenth century was dubbed the Dutch Golden Age due to the recent trading predominance, wealth, scientific advancement and cultural blossoming experienced by the Republic. Some early examples of this increasingly secular trend included sumptuous banquets which dazzled the senses with their abundance. One such painting is Dutch artist Cornelis Engelsz’s The Last Supper, 1612, which shows a man in a tavern sitting at a table which is veritably groaning with all kinds of different foods. A young woman offers him some poultry while a young boy behind greedily enjoys a flat bun. The painting is a virtuoso display of different textures such as gleaming glass, metal and fish scales, crunchy bread, rich fabrics, and soft fur and feathers. Only later we realise that something else is happening – relegated to another room in the very background, the resurrected Christ is dining with two of his disciples who have not recognised him. The scene captured is the key moment in which Christ breaks the bread and his disciples recognise him, after which he disappears. The painting therefore functions in two ways, as a visual representation of abundance and artistic skill, but also as a comment on the ephemerality of earthly pleasures.
It was in the 17th-century Netherlands that compositions of food, flowers and objects acquired the name by which they are known. ‘Still life’ comes from the Dutch stillleven, ‘motionless life’ or ‘motionless model’, and is found in Dutch inventories from the 1650s. Much as in earlier religious art, Dutch still lifes did not include different elements in a random manner. Still lifes of meals were painted according to specific customs pertaining to different types of meals taken during the day. The foods represented acquired new layers of meaning that sometimes added to, and other times departed from, traditional Christian connotations. A specific type of still life falls into the category of vanitas, from the Latin for ‘emptiness’. This type of still life combines elements which point to wealth and abundance with others which signify death or the futility of earthly possessions.
Often still lifes portraying food or flowers were compositions born of the artist’s imagination rather than actual scenes set out in the studio. This is because different fruit ripened and flowers bloomed at different times so still lifes might be painted over several months or using previously sketched models. An example of the lengths artists went to is given by a letter of 1606 from the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel to his patron, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, informing him that he had travelled to Brussels to paint flowers which were unknown or unavailable in Antwerp, his home city.
One of the most refined interpreters of the Dutch still life genre is Willem Claesz Heda. His paintings used a muted but rich palette of golds and greys to present us with exquisite breakfast or banquet scenes. His Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware, c.1635, depicts a partially consumed meal of oysters on a pewter plate. On a separate plate, protruding in front of the table, are a partly peeled lemon (a single pip discarded nearby) and a paper cornet likely to contain pepper. Behind them is a type of wine glass called a roemer and a silver tazza (Italian for cup) on its side. Walnuts and hazelnuts are scattered here and there on the table. Everything is painted in exquisite detail and designed to convey the idea of opulence: the overturned tazza gives the artist a pretext for showing his skill in painting not only the embossed and polished silver surface but the unpolished finish of its base. Although the oysters themselves were not an extravagant food in The Netherlands, lemons were expensive imports from southern Europe and pepper was a luxury traded from South East Asia. Heda, however, also included elements in his painting which point to something beyond a mere banquet scene, such as the broken glass alluding to earthly pleasures being fleeting. Nuts were a long-established Christian symbol (their shells referencing the wood of Christ’s cross and the kernels his divine nature), while the overturned tazza alludes to the literal meaning of vanitas (‘emptiness’).
Dutch still life soon became popular in Britain; however, in the hierarchy of artistic genres, still life was seen as inferior to history paintings, portraiture and landscape. Women artists in 18th and 19th century Britain often turned to painting still life because they were not allowed to study from nude models, and still life could also be painted without going out into the landscape or to patrons’ houses.
Highly skilled artists such as Emily Stannard and her niece Eloise Harriet Stannard, focused primarily on still lifes of fruit, game or flowers, exhibiting in prestigious London institutions. One of Emily Stannard’s best-known compositions shows game displayed at a market stall in Norwich. Birds and a hare are shown in a variety of positions. Their apparent abundance is probably deceiving, as the city was in economic decline at the time. The different textures of their fur and plumage are depicted with great care. The artist showed off her skills further by including reflective surfaces such as a jug and water bowl, harsh-textured straw and wicker, and a landscape in the background. Yet, the apparently straightforward market scene is complicated by incongruous elements such as the robin in the foreground (not a foodstuff) and a sprig of holly. The robin in Christian tradition is associated with the Crucifixion, its red breast from Christ’s blood dripping on a robin after it plucked a thorn from his crown. Inedible (indeed, poisonous) holly is also associated with the Passion of Christ because of its prickly leaves.
Both Emily and Eloise Harriet Stannard were closely acquainted with Dutch Golden Age painting. Eloise Harriet’s painting Fruit: Grapes, Peaches, Plums and Pineapple with a Carafe of Red Wine, 1872, follows Dutch tradition both as an exuberant display of plenty and, by including imperfections such as blemished fruit and curling leaves, as an allusion to the passage of time. Her composition is imaginary, as peaches and red currants ripen in early summer while plums, grapes and pears in the autumn. Stannard would have worked on the painting over several months and painted elements such as the embroidered shawl and gleaming glass carafe in the winter months, when fresh fruit was not readily available. The shawl and carafe would have conveyed the idea of luxury, but not as much as the pineapple. The arrival of the first pineapples from the Caribbean created a veritable mania for pineapple growing in Europe, with Dutch gardeners having the first successes at the very end of the 17th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries pineapples were grown in state-of-the-art greenhouses. Their cost was exorbitant and people bought them or even hired them to impress their guests. Here the pineapple –a sliced one at that! – would have been seen as a positive extravagance.
Food can appear to be a trivial subject in art but, as we have seen, it can have many powerful symbolic associations, both intended by the artist and experienced by the viewer. As a result the representation of food in art remains a constant for professional and amateur artists to the present day.
A haunting recent film by Sam Taylor-Johnson shows a composition of fruit in a wicker basket (Still Life, 2001). Over a matter of minutes, the fruit decays and eventually turns into a pulpy mass surrounded by flies, while a plastic biro nearby remains untouched by the passage of time. Created in the most contemporary of media, it is as much a powerful statement about life and death as Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, c.1599, and Dutch vanitas paintings.