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Paintings Depict a Historical Love Affair with Salt, Bread, Shellfish and Exotic Fruit

Paintings Depict a Historical Love Affair with Salt, Bread, Shellfish and Exotic Fruit

Historical European and American paintings depict lots of fruit, salt, bread, meat, and shellfish

These commonly painted foods were often not readily available

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Historical paintings of aspirational foods show that our contemporary obsession with decadence is nothing new 

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Our obsession with looking at tasty, exotic food is nothing new. A 2016 analysis shows that some of the most commonly painted foods from 1500 to 2000 AD, such as shellfish and exotic fruit, were not representative of a typical diet; rather, artists painted glorified, extravagant meals based on desire rather than reality- a practice similar to today’s constantly trending #FoodPorn.

“Over-the-top meals aren’t a modern invention,” explains author Brian Wansink, PhD, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design. “Paintings from the age of Michelangelo were loaded with the foods modern diets warn us about: salt, sausages, bread and more bread."

For the study, published in Sage Open, researchers selected 750 European and American food paintings from the 500 year period and focused on 140 paintings of family meals.  They found that 76% of all the meals depicted included fruits, but only 19% contained vegetables. Over 54% showed bread and pastries and 39% contained meat. Salt was the most commonly depicted seasoning and cheese the most common dairy product.

It turns out, admiring a painting of a dramatically lit oyster buffet isn’t too dissimilar from double-tapping that carefully filtered surf and turf pic on Instagram. The most commonly painted foods of the last 500 years were not representative of a typical diets.  The most commonly painted vegetable was an artichoke, the most common fruit was a lemon, and the most common meat was shellfish, usually lobster. Overall, shellfish were depicted in 22% of paintings despite being rather uncommon.  According to the authors, these paintings sometimes featured food that was either aspirational—rare or hard to afford—or foods painters thought would make the paintings most aesthetically pleasing.

In the end, “Our love affair with visually appealing, decadent, or status foods is nothing new,” says author Andrew Weislogel, Ph.D., Curator of Earlier European American Art at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art, “It was already well-established 500 years ago.”

For examples of the paintings analyzed, click here. 

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This study was self-funded by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and authored by Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Food and Brand Lab, Anupama Mukund, PhD candidate at University of Washington (formerly a Food and Brand Lab researcher) and Andrew Weislogel, PhD.  

Summary by Katherine Baildon