Food Art Does Not Reflect Reality: A Quantitative Content Analysis of Meals in Popular Paintings
SAGE Open (July-September 2016: 1–10) DOI: 10.1177/2158244016654950
10 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2020
Date Written: July 18, 2016
Can the frequency with which a food is depicted in paintings give historical insight into family meals over the years and across countries? To initially explore this question, 750 food-related paintings were screened down to 140 paintings from Western Europe and the United States depicting small, family meals. Quantitative content analyses showed the most frequently eaten foods (such as chicken, eggs, and squash) were least frequently depicted in paintings. In contrast, the most aspirational foods such as shellfish were commonly painted in countries with the smallest coastlines (Germany), and over half (51.4%) of the paintings from the seafaring Netherlands contained non-indigenous tropical lemons. Moreover, although bread and apples have been commonly available over time, bread has been painted 74% less frequently and apples painted 302% more frequently. In general, paintings tend to feature meals with foods that were either aspirational to the commissioning family, aesthetically pleasing or technically difficult for the painter, or that encoded cultural, religious, or political information for informed viewers. Care should be taken to not project food depictions in paintings as indicative of what was actually served or eaten in that country at the time.
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