Old paintings show the evolution of fruit and vegetables throughout history

Hyperaxion Jul 28, 2020

A biologist and an art historian worked together to analyze old paintings and try to understand how fruits and vegetables have evolved over the centuries.

If we look at the painting “The Harvesters” (1565), by Pieter Bruegel, we can see peasants working in a wheat field, with stems almost as tall as they are.

The Harvesters, by Peter Bruegel the Elder; 1565.
The Harvesters, by Peter Bruegel the Elder; 1565. (Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,and Rogers Fund, 1919).

“Nowadays, if you walk through a wheat field, you basically see that wheat is about knee-height. The short stature is essentially a consequence of breeding from the second half of the 20th century,” said Ive De Smet, a biologist at the University of Ghent.

Together with David Vergauwen, an art historian, De Smet studied what old works of art can reveal about the evolution of fruit and vegetables over the centuries.

Giovanni Stanchi (Rome c. 1645-1672), Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape, oil on canvas.
Giovanni Stanchi (Rome c. 1645-1672), Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape, oil on canvas.

“Plant-based food is lavishly depicted by thousands of artists throughout the ages and offers a vast and unique insight into the stunning evolution in shapes and colors of our modern-day groceries,” wrote the article’s authors.

“Capturing this information can demonstrate when and where particular varieties emerged, how common they were, and what correlation existed between food habits, trade routes, and newly conquered lands,” they added.

Frans Snyders (1579-1657); "Fruit Stall".
Frans Snyders (1579-1657), “Fruit Stall” (1640).

The idea came about when Vergauwen noticed a strange-looking melon in the painting “Fruit Stall” (1640), by Frans Snyders. The scientist suggested that, maybe, at that time melons looked different from what they look today. By contrast, De Smet felt that Snyders just wasn’t good at painting fruit.

From there, they began to analyze works of art to see if they could be useful to understand the evolution of fruits and vegetables.

Frans Snyders' "Allegory of the Earth"
Frans Snyders’ “Allegory of the Earth”. (Credit: Alinari Archives/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) .

“We may have some of the genetic code for certain ancient plants, but often not well-preserved samples, so looking at art can help put these species on a time map and track down their evolution,” said De Smet.

The article with the results of the study was published in the August issue of the scientific journal Trends in Plant Science.


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