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July 27, 2020 - Smithsonian

Centuries-Old Paintings Help Researchers Track Food Evolution

Centuries-Old Paintings Help Researchers Track Food Evolution
Painting: Fruit Stall (Portion, closeup)Frans Snyders (~1620)

Art inadvertently documents the domestication of carrots, wheat, watermelon and other culinary delights

In Fruit Stall, a Baroque masterpiece by artist Frans Snyders, an impressive array of produce appears strewn across baskets and platters on a large wooden table. Some of the items on offer are instantly recognizable: Take, for instance, the green grapes overflowing from a large basket at the center of the table. But other goods, including a split-open green fruit dotted with black seeds, are less familiar to the modern eye.

Plant geneticist Ive De Smet and art historian David Vergauwen studied Fruit Stall firsthand during a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg several years ago. While viewing the work, the pair realized that neither could identify some of the fruits depicted in the scene, De Smet tells CNN’s Kristen Rogers. Initially, the scientist theorized that Snyders, who specialized in still-life paintings featuring fruit, vegetables and animals, lacked talent.

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