Good Enough to Eat: The Top 10 Depictions of Food in Art History
Food and feasting have been frequent subjects in art throughout history. After all, food isn’t just vital to our livelihood, it also brings us great pleasure. Check out our list of the top ten depictions of food in art and you’ll have plenty of anecdotes ready to share at your next dinner party. Bon appetit!
These cleverly designed Roman floor mosaics present the scattered remains of fish scales, wishbones, fruit bits, and other pieces of discarded food in an all-over pattern. In the Roman custom, floors were not immediately swept up after banquets and meals, and dropped food was left where it lay. The Romans installed these mosaics on the floors of dining halls and kitchens.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vegetables in a Bowl (The Gardener), 1587-1590
This comic profile of a humble gardener’s face is constructed of fat cheeks made from onions and a large bowl worn as a hat. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) was a Milanese painter famous for his fanciful compositions of fruits and animals arranged into human forms. Arcimboldo’s works have always been popular, but they were generally regarded as curiosities or jokes, rather than fine art. Today, critics appreciate how Arcimboldo’s symbolically rich images force our eyes to shutter between the small details and overall composition. It takes a few seconds for our minds to comprehend both pieces of the puzzle – and then our stomach is likely to kick in!
Jan Steen, The Bean Feast, 1668
This merry scene depicts a multi-generational group of revelers towards the end of a raucous “bean feast.” According to custom, a cake was baked with one bean inside. Guests divided the cake, and the lucky person who took the piece of the cake with the bean inside became the “Bean King” for the night. Bean feasts have inspired many of our favorite genre paintings, but this one is our pick of the pod.
Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885
The Potato Eaters relates the tough, hard, and cold life of a group of farmers as they shared a meal of potatoes by the faint light of a lamp. The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) saw himself as a painter of peasant life. He told his brother, Theo, that he wasn’t able to think of anything else. Today, this somber painting is considered to be van Gogh’s first major work.
Chaim Soutine, Side of Beef, 1923
This side of beef is painted split-open so we can view the bloody details of the meat. The Lithuanian born painter Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) settled in France in 1913. He visited abattoirs and even brought a cow’s carcass into his studio while preparing to paint this gruesome and intense image. His assistant poured cow’s blood on the carcass in order to make it look more realistic. While Soutine was working, his neighbors complained about the smell of the rotting meat and called the police. When police responded, the struggling artist asserted that his work was more important than sanitation!
Daniel Spoerri, Kichka’s Breakfast, 1960
The nomadic Swiss artist (b. 1930) was active in France’s Nouveau Realisme art movement of the 1960s. He created three-dimensional snapshots, or “snare pictures”, by affixing objects assembled from his life onto a wall for display. Using this method, his first work of “eat art” was made of leftover items from his girlfriend’s breakfast table. Spoerri mapped and detailed his recollections about each meal in his book, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (1962).
Claes Oldenburg, Food Burger, 1962
The Food Burger is a giant-size sculpture of a hamburger made of canvas and foam rubber. The New York artist Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) created large-scale sculptures of everyday food items in an attempt to match the gigantic scale of luxury merchandise on sale in Manhattan during the 1960’s. The Food Burger‘s soft and comically large form, sewn and assembled by Oldenburg’s wife, Coosje van Bruggen, ridiculed established notions of consumption and good taste. The sculpture clearly expresses the relationship between cultural production and modern industry, making it one of the strongest examples of Pop Art from that era.
René Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964
In the famous subversion of what would otherwise be a straightforward portrait, an apple placed directly in front of the subject’s face blocks the view we would expect to see. The Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967) is known for his witty and thought provoking works. The apple has always been a potent symbol in the tradition of Western Art, and this particular work combines it with the portrait of a “faceless businessman.” Unusual juxtaposition of ordinary elements was a key theme for Magritte, who explained: “everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
Vik Muniz, Milan, The Last Supper (from Pictures of Chocolate), 1997
This conceptual photograph – a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c.1495) made entirely of chocolate syrup – is a joy for the senses. Brazilian artist Vik Muniz (b. 1961) is known for recreating famous moments from art history with everyday objects, including food. Because the syrup wouldn’t last, Muniz photographed the completed work to record it for posterity. He calls these works “photographic delusions” because they replicate recognizable images and surprise the viewer.
Rikrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free), 1992
Another recent conceptual piece has brought the feast environment into the gallery space. Contemporary New York-based artist Rikrit Tiravanija (b. 1961) cooked curry in an art gallery and served it to his visitors. Since the first event in 1992, institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, have recreated Tiravanija’s curry experience. The act of serving curry brings people together and encourages them to discuss art. You’ll be a part of art by eating this piece instead of looking at it!
Featured Image (From Left to Right): Jan Steen, The Bean Feast, 1668, Source: Wikimedia Commons; Claes Oldenburg, Food Burger, 1962, Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY