I think we can all agree that sensational food is an art form. It excites our senses, and producing it requires immense talent. However, food also spoils easily, so you can forget about exhibiting a perfectly medium-rare steak au poivre at the Louvre. Instead, we try to immortalize food by taking pictures of it. It’s arguably the most effective way to appreciate a memorable dish, long after it has satisfied our tummies.
I hate to admit it, but I’m one of those people who can’t devour food without snapping an obligatory photo. It’s just my way of paying homage to the artistry and architecture behind every skilfully-arranged plate. But apparently, exalting food through the visual arts is a practice that greatly predates Instagram. As you’ll observe, food has been a favorite subject for artists throughout history (and even before such).
When it comes to merging food and art, we are indebted to the French. Their taste for the finer things in life goes as far back as the Paleolithic Era. Our French Cro-Magnon brothers were the first to celebrate their food through art, as seen on the walls of the Lascaux Caves. This work is roughly 17,300 years old. It shows how our obsession with foodstagramming dates all the way back to prehistoric times, when food was highly prized as the hard-won result of life-threatening hunting trips (as opposed to midnight runs to the nearest convenience store).
Things changed a lot when our cave-dwelling ancestors discovered fire, and learned how to cook their food in the process. Once they no longer needed to digest tough animal proteins and stringy plant nutrients, they were able to divert their energies towards loftier activities (such as growing their brains, working their way to the top of the food chain, and setting up legendary civilizations.)
Ancient Egyptian Period
The Ancient Egyptians were just as hip with their food fetish. The photo above is a painting, which dates back to 1400 B.C., at the Tomb of Nakht in Thebes, Egypt. This massive mural on the walls of the priest’s tomb depicts several food-generating activities such as wine-making, hunting, and fishing. Tomb paintings usually illustrated activities that the deceased wished to carry on doing in the afterlife (which is said to be overflowing with food, whether you cultivate it or not). That pretty much tells you how hardcore the Ancient Egyptians were about their gustatory fixation.
There’s a reason why the Dark Ages is called such. Apparently, there is a huge lack of historical data available for that period. I guess people were so depressed about the Fall of the Roman Empire that they decided to hide into obscurity (thus putting a momentary halt to foodstagramming).
The Renaissance period, however, was a complete turnaround. It was characterized by a revival of culture under the influence of Classical models. Their renewed fascination with Greek and Roman antiquity was evident in their leanings towards art realism and the use of perspective. Food was elevated to new levels of refinement and sophistication, as large and elaborate banquets were often celebrated by the nobility.
In the 16th century, Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. And in line with the Renaissance fascination for both classical mythology and food as an entertaining art form, Arcimboldo painted fruits and flowers to form the features of his subject as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons.
Just imagine sitting for an artist for hours, only to find that he painted you as vegetation. Rudolf II must have had a good sense of humor.
Of course, we cannot talk about food in art without mentioning the most celebrated supper there ever was. And Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century mural about Jesus’ final repast is the most iconic. The legendary artist toiled over the fresco from dusk till dawn (ironically, without even stopping to eat), and constantly agonized over his inability to accurately portray the faces of Jesus and Judas.
Also worth noting is Jacopo Bassano’s interpretation of the biblical meal, which was painted in 1542. Following Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, this rendition is more dynamic because of the stylized poses and hyperbolic facial expressions. Other remarkable aspects of this work are the inclusion of various dishes (including an animal’s head) on the table, the oblivious dog lying down, and the devious cat slinking around the chairs: factors of a meal that I have yet to find in any biblical record.
Moving on to the secular (and more obvious) food depictions, we have the work of 17th century Dutch painter Willem Kalf. His body of work was known as pronkstilleven, which is Dutch for “opulent still life painting.” He wasn’t content with simply painting fruit in a bowl, so he often featured food amidst gold and silver serving dishes, ornately-designed cloths, and intricate table settings. Such style is distinctive of the Baroque aesthetic (which was characterized by intense drama in composition and subject matter, rich and deep colors, and a strong contrast between light and shadow, or chiaroscuro). The term Baroque was originally a derogatory term used to emphasize the excesses of the time. And looking at the art (and the food) from that period, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with that description.
Of all the artists, I think it was Claude Monet who enjoyed his food the most. He was renowned not only for his Impressionist works of art, but also for his epicurean palate. He had several published cooking journals, which chronicled his lavish lunches with his artist friends (Cézanne and Renoir, to name a few). Monet’s dining table must have been the pinnacle of culinary and artistic hipsterdom during his time.
One of the more controversial pieces of this era was Luncheon on the Grass by Édouard Manet. It features two men having a picnic with a naked woman. The stark contrast between the clothing of the painting’s subjects sparked a great debate about what Manet was trying to demonstrate. But frankly, I’m more interested in what they were having for lunch.
Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is a stark contrast to the extravagant depictions of the Impressionists.
This painting is one of his early works, hence its grim subject matter and drab use of colors (both of which might indicate his early timidity with composition and the use of color). Still Life with Mackerel, Lemon, and Tomato is more typical of van Gogh’s famed style (and his tight budget as a starving artist who never sold a painting in his lifetime). Colorful and vibrant, the painting elevates the European version of tuyo at kamatis.
The Cubist technique in Still Life with Cheese and Still Life with Cat and Lobster is unmistakeably Pablo Picasso’s. The simplification of natural forms into geometric shapes was a novel idea, as it veered away from the tradition of perspective. The idea behind Cubism is to show multiple views of a subject matter. And when it comes to food, isn’t multiplicity what we all want?
Pop Art Period
One of the most famous food depictions in art is Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup series. His work seemed to represent the modern era of commercialization, and the indiscriminate “sameness” (or tedious lack of variety) that accompanied it. Others viewed the paintings as a subversive critique of American capitalism, but Warhol himself asserted that they are devoid of emotional or social commentary. Honestly, I think he just liked Campbell Soup.
The tradition of glorifying food through art continues to this day. Tjalf Sparnaay is a 21st century Dutch artist who paints everyday food with painstakingly accurate detail. His paintings look so real that they make your mouth water. Just look at the painting above!
Needless to say, the visual commemoration of food has a rich and diverse history, one which transcends civilizations, religions, and social classes. So the next time someone pokes fun at your foodstagramming ways, tell them you’re merely continuing the legacy left behind by the great masters of art. Who knows? With your intensive knowledge of filters and hashtags, you might very well become the Warhol of our time.
Or you might get featured in Pepper.ph’s Fap-Worthy Food (which is so much cooler).
[Image sources: LOL Snaps / Tumblr / Egyptiana Emporium / Wikimedia / Paul Riedel / Ibiblio / Azerbaijanrugs / Framing Painting / Wikipaintings / Terminartors / Monet Painting / Wikipaintings / Comoj / Fineart-China / Pablo Ruiz Picasso / Wikipaintings / Wichita / Tate / Thirsty Reader / Museum Syndicate / News.com.au]