Still life paintings: old school food porn

Still life by Floris van Schooten at Frans Hals Museum Haarlem, the Netherlands

During a recent visit with my mom to the excellent Frans Hals museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, it occurred to me that still life paintings are the classic version of what we now call ‘food porn’. Why were our ancestors so keen on depicting food on their canvases? Read on for some background.
Glistening grapes, a shiny hock of ham, a velvety piece of table cloth, a polished wine goblet; opulent scenes of inanimate objects started to be in vogue around the 16th, 17th centuries. These still life paintings offered a perfect opportunity for artists to showcase their skills in composition (food styling), lighting and eye for detail. Upper class Europeans liked to commission paintings to boast about their wealth by having art works made of opulent dinner or breakfast feasts. 

Still lifes were also used to signify deeper meanings and symbolism. For instance, depictions of decaying food symbolize mortality. Grapes represent fertility as well as a being a sign of debauchery. Lemons were a luxury item; a peeled lemon conveys bitterness and mortality, and was also a particularly suitable item to show a painter’s aptitude in realistically displaying this pricy citrus fruit. Bread is a religious symbol (the body of Christ) and plums indicate loyalty. 

The Golden Age (~ 17th century) was the highlight for still lifes painted by Dutch and Flemish realist artists, including Willem Kalf, Frans van Schooten and Abraham Brueghel. Over the next few centuries, the art of still life paintings spread throughout Europe. In Spain, the works were called bodegóns (from bodega), as painted by Francisco Zurbarán and Luis Egidio Melendez. In Italy, the genre was less popular. The most famous Italian still life painter is probably Caravaggio, who made a few still lifes with fruit. In the 19th century famous Frenchman Paul Cézanne represented the transition period from Impressionism to Cubism, with Picasso being seen as the leading Cubist painter. Later on in the 20th century, Salvador Dalí and even Andy Warhol were making still life art, with the latter’s famously controversial Campbell’s Soup Cans.

These days food porn is omnipresent all over the web and we can spend every minute of the day salivating over gorgeously composed scenes of everything from juicy hamburgers to crisp salads with edible flowers. Thanks to our ancestors for starting the trend, and thanks to technology and creative minds worldwide for making it all possible. 


Image: Still Life with Kippers, Oysters and Smoker’s Accessories – Floris van Schooten (1625) at Frans Hals Museum Haarlem, the Netherlands

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