Think you’re an oil painting? You need bread, meat, sausages and more bread

Study of 750 food paintings from the past five centuries

Our longing for foods that are not good for us is nothing new and goes back at least 500 years.

New research has illustrated how people centuries ago sought after the same things we fancy today.

"Our love affair with visually appealing, decadent or status foods is nothing new," said Dr Andrew Weislogel, curator of Earlier European American Art at Cornell University in Ithica, New York.

There is plenty of evidence for this as seen in European paintings dating back to the 16th century, the Cornell researchers say. They often depict tables heaving with food including lots of the things that today are considered bad for us.


“Crazy meals involving less-than-healthy foods aren’t a modern craving,” suggests Dr Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

He and Dr Weislogel joined to study 750 food paintings from the past five centuries. In particular, they focused on 140 paintings depicting family meals.

They found that 76 per cent of all the meals depicted included fruits, but only 19 per cent contained vegetables. Over 54 per cent showed bread and pastries and 39 per cent contained meat. Salt was the most commonly depicted seasoning and cheese the most common dairy product

Looking at a subset of paintings, of the 36 Renaissance Period paintings assessed, 86 per cent of them depicted bread while 61 per cent depicted meat. Disappointingly for those who promote a healthy five-a-day of veg and fruit, only 22 per cent of these paintings included any vegetables.

Often quite rare and difficult to get items were included in the paintings studied, the authors write in a report published on Tuesday in the journal Sage Open.

For example, the most commonly painted vegetable was the artichoke and lemons were the most often depicted fruit.

When it came to meat the most common portrayal of meat was actually of shellfish, usually lobster.

The authors believe the goal was to display indulgent, aspirational or aesthetically pleasing dinners, with plenty of bread about the place for good calorific measure.

Funding for the study came from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and the research team included Anupama Mukund.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.