The depiction of food in art spans across cultures and all of recorded human history. With practice stretching back to ancient civilizations, a variety of fruit paintings can be seen in Greek and Roman depictions of banquets and bacchanals and inside Egyptian burial chambers depicted among all of the good things waiting for the deceased in the afterlife. A recurring theme through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern time, the subject of fruit has served as a celebration of a theme, composition itself or a powerful metaphor. Imbued with symbolism, this imagery was often used to reveal something else.
A ripe apple, a peach, a golden pear, a lemon, a juicy strawberry, and pomegranate - all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. But for Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance painters, fruit was part of an incredibly rich visual language. Each type of fruit carried a different meaning. Often depicted peeled with its attractive play of lights on translucent flesh, the bitterness and sourness of lemons symbolized the deceptive allure or attraction of earthly beauty. While an apple was supposed to remind the viewers of the carnal pleasures and sin, a peach was used as a replacement to this maligned fruit, symbolizing truth and salvation. While figs symbolized a loss of innocence and a fall from grace, pears represented marital faith. Similarly, pomegranates, grapes, oranges, strawberries and other fruits were all imbued with a deeper meaning for the viewer to read. During the 16th century, depictions of fruit acted as symbols of the seasons and of the senses, both as a literal representation of the delicacies that the upper class might enjoy and as a religious reminder to avoid gluttony and excess. The Golden Age of the Dutch and Flemish culture gave rise to the concept of Vanitas still lifes, works imbued with symbolism that carried a strong Memento mori message. The condition of the depicted fruit was often allegorical. Perishable and ephemeral just like a human life, fruit served as a representation of the transient nature of our existence. While fresh and ripe fruit represented a symbol of abundance, bounty, fertility, youth and vitality, decayed ones served as a reminder of our own undeniable mortality and inevitability of change. Besides being a moral and social commentary, fruit depictions also fashioned clever visual puns, revealing their humorous or erotic potential.
Featured images: Raphaelle Peale - Melons and Morning Glories, 1813; Paul Cezanne - Still life, 1894; Tom Wesselmann - Still Life with Lilies, Petunias and Fruit, via pinterest.com
The Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is best known for his imaginative portrait heads made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books. Known as a 16th-century Mannerist, Arcimboldo tended to show close relationships between human and nature, but also show his appreciation of nature. The portrait Summer from 1573 shows a head entirely made from seasonal fruits. Some scholars believe that Arcimboldo’s unique portraits present an inversion - when the ugliness seems beautiful, or the disgrace exceeds the beauty.
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Summer, 1573
A painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio created circa 1599, Basket of Fruit shows a wicker basket perched on the edge of a ledge with an assortment of summer fruits. Teetering on the edge of the picture-space, the basket seems in danger of falling out of the painting and into the viewer's space. Generally in less than perfect condition, the majority of fruit seems worm-eaten and insect-predated. It is believed that the general theme focuses on the fading beauty and the transience and natural decay of things. Scholars also describe the painting as a metaphor for the Church.
Featured image: Caravaggio - Basket of Fruit, c. 1599
Painted by the Baroque Spanish artist Francisco de Zubaran, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose from 1633 is considered a masterwork of the genre. It is also the only still life that was signed and dated by the artist. Showing three group of objects painted against a dark background, the artist isolates the objects from one another in a composition that appears conscious. Appearing as static due to the dark background, these objects seem completely detached from the context of everyday life and humans. Since many Zubaran’s works revolve around Christian themes, some critics interpret the painting as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity or an homage to the Virgin Mary.
Featured image: Francisco de Zurbaran - Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633
During Vincent van Gogh’s early artistic career, still life was the subject of many drawings, sketches, and paintings. Often somber in color, the majority of still lives made in the Netherlands are dated from 1884 to 1885 while the artist was living in Nuenen. During this period, van Gogh experimented with color, light, and techniques he learned from modern artists. In the painting Still Life with Vegetables and Fruit created in 1884, he experiments with the use of light falling across objects. He believed that the use of dark colors was more realistic and mature.
Featured image: Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Vegetables and Fruit, 1884
The painter Paul Cezanne used the still life genre to advance ideas about what modern art could look like. His still life illustrations are viewed as a mixture of both traditional and modern – while the fruits and vegetables in his pieces are easy to identify, they appear as decorative items. The painting The Basket of Apples from 1885 is full of odd errors in drawing, such as the lines that represent the close and far edge of the table, the bottle looks tipsy and the cookies are very odd. Cezanne tended to show that the illusion of space that was constructed since the Early Renaissance is not a real experience of human sight.
Featured image: Paul Cezanne - The Basket of Apples, 1885
Created in 1909, The Dessert: Harmony in Red is considered by some critics to be Henri Matisse’s masterpiece. This Fauvist painting follows the example set by Impressionism with the overall lack of a central focal point. To create this painting commissioned for the dining room in the Moscow mansion of the famous Russian collector Sergey Shchukin, Matisse turned to a motif common in the works created that year – a room decorated with vases, fruits, and flowers. Using a red color that swallows up the three-dimensional space of the room as a compositional device, the artist did manage to create an impression of space.
Featured image: Henri Matisse – The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1909, via arthermitage.org
Created in 1909, The Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table is considered one of the grandest Picasso’s works during the early alliance with Georges Braque. Having an unusual size and shape for a still life, the composition was adapted from studies for one of his own pictures of costumed figures seated around a drop-leaf table. In the painting, Picasso makes a network of allusions to Cezanne’s above-mentioned piece. He borrows favorite motifs, imitates formal devices and emulates Cezanne’s innate sense of ceremony, making the laden table a kind of secular altar.
Featured images: Pablo Picasso - Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table, 1909, via pablopicasso.com
In the last years of her life, Frida Kahlo produced several still life paintings that were often biographical. In the painting Still Life With Parrot and Fruit from 1951, the colors are still vivid and the detail precise. Becoming dependent on pain killers in the subsequent years, the quality and focus of her work dramatically changed. The painting shows fruit cut open, possibly referring to the surgeries she endured throughout her life. The abundance of native fruits also reflects her passionate embrace of Mexicanidád.
Featured image: Frida Kahlo - Still Life With Parrot and Fruit, 1951
Setting himself the challenge to paint the Great American still life, Tom Wesselmann created a series of still lives where he mixed conventional oil painting with collage elements. The new type of genre painting he created celebrated the shining consumer lifestyle that was a product of the American dream. Showing an intimate tableau of clean and wholesome American domesticity, Still Life #28 presents a blueprint for the freedom, harmony, and prosperity of the promised land. The painting is a precise composition, anonymous in the materials, yet highly sophisticated in its construction.
Featured image: Tom Wesselmann - Still Life #28, 1963, via learnodo-newtonic.com
David Hockney used still life, one of the most traditional genres of painting, as a template upon which he subverted traditional perspective and notions of depth while trying to depict one true reality. In the painting Fruit in a Chinese Bowl created in 1988, Hockney adopted a kind of non-perspective space, assuming that the viewer was located within the place of the picture. In this way, he consciously and simultaneously connected multiple vantage points. The distinctive shape of each fruit in the bowl is complemented by a wealth of color and attention to detail referencing the realistic depictions in still lives of the Seventeenth Century.
Featured image: David Hockney - Fruit in a Chinese Bowl, 1988, pinterest.com
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