Food in the Arts – A Look at Artistic Use of Food Over the Millennia

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Food and drink are the subjects of this 3500-year-old Egyptian art. Painting by Maler der Grabkammer des Menna courtesy of the Yorck Project.

Food and drink are the subjects of this 3500-year-old Egyptian art. Painting by Maler der Grabkammer des Menna courtesy of the Yorck Project.

Art is what the artist says is art, or so we’ve been told. Is food art? If the artist says that food is art, then it must follow that food should be in the arts as well as being an art in itself. Have you ever noticed the quantities of foods, the food-related products and the food harvesting and preparation rituals that frequently appear in the visual arts? Food is the cornerstone of our very existence, so it stands to reason that foods should be an important theme in the arts.

Food in Art – How Is it Used?

The arts have clearly indicated the importance of food in creative compositions throughout history. Food tells a story of hunting and survival in ancient cave paintings. Food becomes the composition itself in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Roman frescoes, Renaissance statues of religious images, classical still lifes and pop art multiplicity.

Food is depicted in scenes of harvest, scenes of celebration, and scenes of mythological or religious significance. It makes one wonder, though, is food a celebration of the theme or is food the composition itself, the metaphor of the image?

Many artists throughout the centuries used food to complete the composition. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is a good example. In his Last Supper (1495-1499), the table is scattered with remnants of a supper enjoyed amongst friends, in this case Jesus and his disciples. It is a fitting image to paint on the wall of the refectory (the eating hall) of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan.

Food as Symbol and Metaphor

The triangular formation of the Christ figure in the center of the Last Supper not only creates the central balance of the composition, but it also draws the eye to the central figure of the scene: Jesus. This triangular composition is created by Jesus’ outstretched arms on the table reaching, with one hand, for the bread, and with the other hand, for the wine. Triangles are central in religious imagery of the Renaissance. They have three sides, three being symbolic of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is interesting that in this image the triangle is extended to the food that symbolizes the sacrament that Christians follow in the Holy Eucharist: the body (bread) and the blood (wine) of Christ.

Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, "The Last Supper", (1495-1498)

Food completes the triangle and enhances all of the composition elements in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, “The Last Supper”, (1495-1498)

There is metaphor associated with food imagery that completes the composition. American artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987) certainly thought so. His interpretation of da Vinci’s Last Supper (1986), more than five hundred years after the original was painted in Milan, was an installation piece, multiple images that took up the space of two galleries, a collage of metaphorical symbols all circulating around the idea of food, eating and a supper shared with friends.

Food Images Reflect Culture

Warhol made a name for himself with pop art images of food and food commercialism. These works made a strong statement about the late twentieth-century in much the same way that da Vinci’s Last Supper made a powerful statement contemporary to his time. Warhol’s work was, as Haden-Guest suggested in “Warhol’s Last Supper,” “a deeply felt final coda,” a completion of his multiple statements that first shocked the world with his series on Campbell soup cans (, 1999).

Who would want to paint (or look at, for that matter) fifty cans of Campbell’s soup? The point of Warhol’s painting is to make something very ordinary, something that most people consume on a regular basis, into something extraordinary. In other words, Warhol puts food in a category that is not just ordinary, it is extraordinary.

Food History Depicted in Art

The significance and symbolism of food goes back even further than da Vinci and the Renaissance artists who depicted many Biblical scenes that included food. Art in the Renaissance becomes a history lesson of food right back to the Biblical beginning of human existence, with Eve taking the forbidden apple off a tree in the Garden of Eden.

There are countless images throughout the centuries of Eve taken the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, including this on, "The Fall of Man"by Lukas Cranach (c1472-1553).

There are countless images throughout the centuries of Eve taking the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, including this one, “The Fall of Man”by Lukas Cranach (c1472-1553).

Earlier forms of visual expression represent food in various forms, indicating its obvious importance in daily life. The ancient Egyptians created art on inner walls of burial chambers as well as on coffins, depicting all of the good things that the deceased would enjoy in the afterlife, particularly the best of foods and drink: the deceased would luxuriate in tasty dishes in the life hereafter.

Food was an essential part of the lives of the living as well as the lives of those deceased souls. People believed (and hoped) that the afterlife was a celebration of sorts, and, as with any other type of celebration, food, good quality food, was an essential, a necessity.

Artists Spark Debate With Food

Art is what the artist says is art? That’s what so many art students are taught and that’s what the art world wants the general public to believe. So when a student, or even an established artist for that matter, presents live meat, poultry or chicken to rot before our eyes, is that art? In 1987, Jan Sterbak created a dress out of sixty pounds of raw flank steak and gave it the title Vanitas: Flesh Dress for An Albino Anorectic.

The work was displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1991 and created quite a stir, presumably not just from the smell. In 2012, the artist was awarded a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Sterbak declared that her ‘meat dress’ was art and that it was making a visual statement about food and humanity. In April 2013, a Calgary art student decided to take the fresh flesh idea further and do performance art by slaughtering a chicken and presenting the slaughtered pieces as a work of art. Is it art?

Art Is Life and So Is Food

Food in its many forms, from creation, to harvest or capture, to preparation, to consumption is a dominant factor in our lives. As Roberta Smith wrote in “Food: Subject, Symbol, Metaphor,” “subject, symbol and metaphor has been ubiquitous in visual communication since the beginning of time” (New York Times, Sept 16, 1994). Since visual art is also so much a reflection of life (realistically or in abstraction), it makes sense that food is a prevalent image recreated over and over again in countless compositional interpretations. After all, art is life and so is food.


CBC News. Chicken Slaughtered in Cafeteria by Calgary Art Student. (April 18, 2013). Accessed June 30, 2013.

CBC News. Meat-dress Sculptor Wins Governor General’s Art Award. (Feb. 28, 2012). Accessed June 30, 2013.

Comenas, Gary. The Origin of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans or The Synthesis of Nothingness. (2003/revised 2010) Accessed June 26, 2013.

Gauvreau, Donovan. The Long History of Food in Art. (2009). Accessed June 26, 2013.

Haden-Guest, Antony. Warhol’s Last Supper. (1999). Accessed June 26, 2013.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Italian Renaissance Accessed June 26, 2013.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Life. Accessed June 26, 2013

Liedtke, Walter. Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed June 28, 2013.

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Images: Burial Practices, Afterlife, & Mummies. Accessed June 28, 2013.

Smith, Roberta. Art Review; Food: Subject, Symbol, Metaphor. (Sept 16, 1994). The New York Times. Accessed June 26, 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Emily-Jane Hills OrfordEmily-Jane Hills Orford says

    yrhong – You have made some very valid arguments. Whilst some artists may just be doing a study of foods, a genuine still life, others might be commenting on human consumption and human abuse of the natural world. We, as the viewer, can certainly ‘read’ into these works whatever we want. That is part of beauty of studying visual art. We don’t have to always agree with the artist’s visual expression, but we can certainly come up with a personal opinion of the work, critical and otherwise. Thank you for sharing your comments.


  1. […] Is the artist commenting on the the contemporary human diet, or ridiculing mass-production of processed foods? Is the artist providing us with social commentary on human desecration of the natural world, using drama and stagecraft to create a lasting impression of the destructive side of humanity? Perhaps the artist simply admires food, as both subject and medium. […]

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