As a painter, I love creating works that make art of food. Growing up in my family, meals were equal to nurturing love. I think that’s why I have so much interest and patience with painting subjects that are edible. Eventually, the “models” of the painting (the grub!) will go on to nurture our growth, and perhaps in painted form, that nurturing love can be communicated visually.
But that’s just one perspective — there are so many artists today and throughout history who paint food for their own unique reasons. Come to the table to take a closer look at the art of food, and explore just a few of the many reasons why artists use food as the subject of art: status, a reminder of the ephemeral nature of our human lives, a strong evocation of the senses and memory, and a potent opportunity for escapism.
The Art of Food and Metaphor in the Dutch Golden Age
If you have seen my paintings, then you might have guessed that I am inspired by the Dutch Baroque period in the 17th century in Holland. It was a fascinating time that in some ways mirrored our own: an independent and capitalist economy, the threat of a plague, increasing globalization, and most importantly, a market for artwork that was not exclusively for royalty or the aristocracy.
During this time, there was an unprecedented boom in art. A recently won independence from Spain and the Catholic church meant that Dutch merchants, including middle-class business people, could keep more of their wealth and spend it on items to outfit their individual homes. This period in art produced some of the most famous names in art like Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt Van Rijn.
So, you’re a successful Dutch merchant with some extra money in your pocket, possibly a larger home that was confiscated from the Catholic church with lots of empty walls, and you have access to a newly expanded art market. What kind of art are you going to buy? One of the most popular choices was still-life painting. What I find so fascinating about Dutch still-life paintings is that you can decode them like a detective armed with a decoding device. Let’s decode one together
The title of Willem Claesz Heda’s work tells us part of the story. Tobacco, lemons, and olives were all grown in much warmer climates than in Northern Europe and were relatively far away from the Netherlands in the 17th century. However, due to the prowess of Dutch traders, merchants had access to these goods. Throw in a fancy golden tazza (a plate on a stand) (are those ivory pipes?), and one way of looking at this artwork is a solid flex of power and money.
Notice how the lemon is partially peeled in this painting. There are multiple ways to interpret this:
The Dutch liked to put lemon peels in their liquor. There are glasses of half-drunk liquor, so the artist could be suggesting to the viewer the bitterness and sharp citrus flavor of lemon in those drinks.
A half-way peeled lemon, similar to a glass half filled, is to remind us of the passing of time and the temporal nature of our bodies. Soon, the fruit will rot, and the wine will be gone. We are neither fresh lemons (or full cups), nor are we completely rotten (or empty cups); we are somewhere in the middle of our lives, but nature will only take us in one direction.
Lemons were thought to be a metaphor for life: the fruit appears beautiful, plump, and juicy on the outside, but once experienced, brings bitterness.
There is so much more… shellfish, birds, bread, flowers, fruits, and vegetables all have their specific meanings. Put enough of them together, and you can paint a story of a person’s life, the experience of living in the Netherlands at the time, and be reminded of the steady march towards death, all through the art of food.
For myself, I was interested in what would happen if I turned up the volume on this symbolism, and instead of painting a single half-peeled lemon, I painted an entire composition of lemons. For me, the painting oscillated between amplifying and diluting the symbolism. Sometimes, it felt like I was being shouted at by a metaphor, and sometimes I thought that there were just too many lemons to be symbolic. As an artist, this see-saw between too much and not enough is an exciting place to explore.
Is Something in the Oven? The Art of Food and Our Senses
Another reason I love to work with food is that, unlike other subjects, most people have a very intimate relationship with food. We understand how a croissant will pull apart when we want to peel off a layer versus how a muffin will pull apart if we just want to eat the top of it. We also hold an eerily accurate memory of the smell of that particular item.
If I told you that I was making garlic bread, you would know exactly what that would smell like when it was getting close to being fully cooked and what it would smell like if it were getting burned! In addition to us appreciating art with our eyes, the art of food can evoke other senses as well, even if they aren’t being directly engaged.
Artrepreneur artist, Debra Goertz, is well aware of this effect and utilizes it in her series of paintings called “Cravings”:
“Just as a good writer can hook a reader with brilliant sensory description of food, I sought with these paintings to hook my viewers, to make them drool a bit as they remembered a smell of cinnamon, the acidic snap of a bursting tomato, or the startling contrast of cold ice cream being melted by hot apple pie.”
Goertz then amplifies this effect by enlarging the images, so they are much larger than life. Her “Cravings 3” painting of pasta with tomatoes and olives is 15” x 40”. That’s some big rigatoni! This enlargement is done intentionally “to exaggerate as much as possible the details, size, color, and texture, to enhance their stimulative effect,” says Goertz.
Not only do we get a large close-up of the dishes, a perspective that gives us the effect of our noses almost touching the food, but Goertz also chooses foods that are “craving” worthy, like waffles and strawberries, a salty pasta dish, and cinnamon rolls drizzled with icing. The effect? A painting that engages more than just our eyes and brings us in touch with our own desires.
Anyone who is a fan of Food TV or the Great British Bake Off (yup and yup) knows that there can be an element of escapism with food. We allow ourselves to indulge our senses and pay attention to our wants, not just our needs. For that span of time, we can put the blinders on, and nothing else matters except the execution of this one particular dish.
The stakes for the people in the show might be emotionally high due to money or fame, but ultimately, if someone does not win a cooking competition, they are going to be just fine. In contrast to the more serious variables in life like taxes, politics, or inflation, watching people cook, even in a competitive environment, is soothing and can provide an antidote to our harsher realities.
One artist who has a strong relationship with this element of escapism through food is Artrepreneur artist Theresa Kasun, and her story is fascinating:
“In 2000, I became obsessed with painting desserts. It started with donuts and then cakes, cupcakes and anything delicious looking and decadent. Looking back, it was a way for me to enter into a world of fantasy and beauty. In many ways, my life was blessed, but on a daily basis I struggled with survival; first domestic violence and having to flee with the help of domestic violence counselors, 14 years in the NYC court system and single motherhood. Painting every night after putting my kids to bed was my world, a world I could create and make beautiful. I wanted that world to be beautiful because beauty brought me joy. And that’s what helped me get through some very difficult days.”
Kasun’s is a truly inspiring story of creation as a respite from struggle and ultimately a path to healing. But Kasun was not content to keep this access to joy to herself.
“If that worked for me, then I thought maybe that would work for others who encountered my work. So I started entering my donut and dessert paintings in competitions and fundraisers at my alma mater, the New York Academy of Art. This is where my paintings caught the attention of major art collectors such as Brooke Shields and Steven and Alexandra Cohen. (Both of whom own one of my dessert paintings!)”
From painting in, ahem, bite-size pieces of time to becoming collected by celebrities, Kasun’s paintings of desserts are a vehicle that brings her and the viewer joy, pleasure, beauty, and fantasy. I like to think that when Brooke Shields is having a hard day, she retreats to a comfy chair and looks at Kasun’s painting of a cake, and it makes her feel better. In this way, Kasun is able to share a slice of her own version of dream-like beauty with the world.
What We Don’t See in the Art of Food
The most important part of the art of food is what it does not show us. Still-lifes of food are always evidence of something outside the canvas: our experience of obtaining a casual indulgence or a hard-earned luxury. They can contain a moral lesson via metaphors, or they can remind us of the time and efforts of loved ones. The art of food does not physically contain the smells, tastes, or memories of that particular item, and yet they are there with us when we view it.
The art of food also describes to us the people who are not in the frame. Many artworks that focus on the art of food do so without illustrating to us exactly what is the relationship between food and the person. Yes, we expect someone to have eaten the food, but why not show that moment? By not offering a conclusion to the viewer, the viewer is allowed to use her or his own imagination, draw her or his own conclusions and make her or his own connections.
I would like to now ask you the question that Artrepreneur artist, Robin Antar, asks in her email signature, “What is YOUR favorite food?” Is taste the only reason, or is there something else that makes you love that item?
I’ll tell you mine: sushi. Not only do I love the taste of it, but I have very fond memories of my Japanese grandmother making it. I loved it so much as a child that I would ask her to make it all the time, and she would tell me that it was only for special occasions. That makes it all the more special for me, and I celebrate every birthday with a sushi dinner.
What’s your favorite food? How do you feel when you look at art with food? I can’t wait to dig into your answers below. Itadakimasu!
Jordan Baker (b. 1981) is an artist and curator living and working in the Hudson Valley, New York. Jordan was born on a naval base in Winterpark, Florida. She attended Tufts University, and received a BFA in Art History from Syracuse University, and an MFA in mixed media from SUNY Albany.