Art Paints a Picture of Historical Fruits and Vegetables

It gives us an idea of how plant-based foods have evolved over centuries.

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The study authors in front of a painting
The study authors in front of a painting.

Liesbeth Everaert / via Eurekalert 

An unusual partnership has sprung up in the hallways of Europe's great art museums. A plant geneticist and an art historian have realized that their skills are more complementary than they thought, and that working together could reveal fascinating information about the history and evolution of plant-based foods.

Ive De Smet, who works at VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology in Belgium, and David Vergauwen, a lecturer on cultural history at Amarant, a cultural institution in Belgium, have been friends since high school. They occasionally travel together and enjoy visiting museums and art galleries. It was while debating an unrecognizable piece of fruit in a 17th-century painting at the Hermitage that they realized art could tell them things about a fruit or vegetable's history that genetics could not.

Plant geneticists are able to decode the genomes of ancient crops, based on rare preserved seeds found in tombs and elsewhere, but there are still "significant gaps in the timelines of where and when many modern-day fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops evolved" (via Eurekalert). Nor can geneticists give accurate descriptions of a fruit or vegetable's appearance.

That's where art can help.

De Smet told CNN that paintings offer missing information for pre-photographic times. They can confirm the presence of certain domesticated species and show how growers may have bred for specific characteristics, altering appearances over time. 

One example is that of ancient Egyptian art revealing green-striped watermelons. These back up genetic analysis of a 3,500-year-old watermelon leaf found in a pharaoh's tomb and suggest that "the fruit was already domesticated at that time, with a sweet, red flesh." 

Another example is carrots, which many thought were bred to be orange in honor of William of Orange, but in fact appear orange in Byzantine art, disproving that theory. Paintings do show, however, that "the vegetable only became popular from the early 17th century."

Examining the way fruits and vegetables looked in the past may also reveal information about where foods came from, how common they were, what they were eaten with, as well as trade routes and newly conquered lands (via CNN). In this sense, De Smet explained, "Our line of inquiry does not limit itself to genetics and art history, but also includes the field of cultural anthropology and social history as well."

Fruit and a Jug on a Table painting by Cézanne
"Fruit and a Jug on a Table" by Paul Cézanne, an artist who frequently depicted plant-based foods in his art. Paul Cézanne / Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

It's important to have a "control" when assessing how accurate a painting is. For their research, De Smet and Vergauwen use roses, which also have "a long history of breeding and centuries-old depictions." So if an artist has painted roses, it helps to determine whether his or her portrayals of fruits and vegetables are accurate. For instance, you wouldn't look to Picasso to "figure out what a pear looked like in the early 20th century," but you could rely on late Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch to give an accurate illustration of a strawberry's biological structure, although "the fruit is taller than the people painted alongside it."

De Smet and Vergauwen recently published a paper in the journal Trends in Plant Science that explains their unique approach to analyzing fruit and vegetable history. They describe the challenges in searching through countless works of art for depictions that are often omitted from titles. As De Smet told CNN over email,

"Catalogues are not always very helpful since a painting might have 20 weird-looking carrots on them, [and] the moment there is a frog on there as well, the painting will be labeled as a 'still life with frog.'"

Because of these limitations, the pair is calling on the general public to help in the search for historic, artistic produce. If you see something that may be of interest, you can email it to them or use an app that is currently being developed. "This is the beauty of doing this kind of research today," De Smet said. "Crowdsourcing tools will allow you to access a lot more data faster than we ever could by just visiting museums." The overall campaign is referred to as #ArtGenetics.