Few cultural products express beliefs and values with the same power as food (and it’s no great leap to think that Instagrammers would feel the same). In art, food helps convey status—certain dishes and ingredients connect to royalty, while others relay the plight of the populace. Through narrative and still life, and from Old World classics to Pop Art, food roots an image in time and place.
History tells us the same. Ancient Greeks and Romans regularly depicted great banquets. Food-related symbolism was rife in the Middle Ages, and equally powerful in the Renaissance. The pomegranate, for example, has at times represented fertility; we all know about Eve and her apple; and, of course, we can understand strung-up fowl as a trophy from the hunt. These images demonstrate privilege. Look around today’s landscape and you’ll realize not much has changed.
By the turn of the 19th century, foodways in art became more intertwined with social commentary, inspired by issues like rapid modernization or increasing gender equality. Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein frequently depicted ubiquitous favorites—hot dogs, pies, and steaks—while his contemporary, Andy Warhol, obsessed over the relentless expansion of packaged goods. Their legacy, built during the topsy-turvy ‘60s, lives on in a slew of multi-hyphenate (digital, urban, street), Internet-friendly artists who toy with our inner fat kid urges.
From barbecues that capture the festive act of feasting, to a Pop Art maple-syrup masterpiece, here are seminal works that demonstrate the breadth of food in art history.—Nick Schonberger