Painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem/Toledo Museum of Art
Painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem/Toledo Museum of Art

Artists, not Instagram, Set the Table for ‘Food Porn’

Centuries before we began snapping and posting photos of food, painters were creating luscious scenes of delicacies.

This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Social media is an endless feed of food—drawings in cappuccino foam, artfully staged overstuffed hamburgers. This #foodporn craze has surprisingly refined origins—even the old masters partook in the artistic tradition.

In a 2016 study called “Food Art Does Not Reflect Reality,” researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab analyzed American and European paintings of family meals between the years 1500 and 2000. The study compared how frequently a food item was depicted in art with how commonly it was consumed. Shellfish, for instance, appeared in a fifth of German paintings, despite the country’s minuscule coastline. Rare delicacies—lobster, artichokes, hazelnuts, and lemons—were particularly popular. This art, they discovered, was used more to flaunt wealth or talent than to display the food actually eaten.

Foodscapes faded in the 20th century but were revived with social media and smartphones. “When there’s pressure to tweet something different all the time, you try to make your life look more exciting,” says Brian Wansink, director of the lab and lead author of the study. “But it’s nothing compared to what they were doing 500 years ago.”