What Can Art Teach Us About the History of Plant Cultivation? A Lot, It Turns Out—Via Something Called #ArtGenetics

Art history offers a snapshot of what fruits and vegetables used to look like.

Giovanni Stanchi, Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape (1645–72). Courtesy of Christie’s.

The fruits and vegetables we eat today have come a long way from their wild ancestors, thanks to millennia of domestication and cultivation.

And throughout history, artists have captured the appearance of plant-based foods, unwittingly offering a window into food’s genetic past.

Call it #ArtGenetics—that’s what Belgian researchers David Vergauwen, a cultural historian, and Ive De Smet of the VIB-UGent Plant Systems Biology Centre in Ghent, have dubbed their new field of research.

Plant geneticists have typically looked for mutations in plant genomes to try to determine how their appearances might have morphed. But those genetic clues don’t paint a picture of how a vegetable used to look as well as a painting can.

Ive De Smet and David Vergauwen have coined the term #ArtGenetics for their new field of research. Photo by Liesbeth Everaert, courtesy of Cell Press.

Ive De Smet and David Vergauwen have coined the term #ArtGenetics for their new field of research. Photo by Liesbeth Everaert, courtesy of Cell Press.

“Images, and in this case artistic depictions, are a good way to provide that missing information,” De Smet told CNN.

De Smet and Vergauwen published a paper on their new iconographic approach to tracing the visual evolution of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds in the journal Trends in Plant Science on Tuesday.

“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,” notes the article, titled “Genomes on Canvas: Artist’s Perspective on Evolution of Plant-Based Foods.”

“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,” the researchers write.

Anthropomorphic Mochica Potato. Photo courtesy of Cell Press.

Anthropomorphic Mochica Potato. Photo courtesy of Cell Press.

But there are pros and cons to harnessing art history as a genetics tool.

Museum catalogues have the potential to serve as a massive historical database, but painting titles and descriptions don’t typically identify the exact kinds of foods pictured, especially if the food is just a minor detail.

Even when food is a painting’s star, it might still have a generic Still Life title. Dated historical language can also make it difficult to single out works that would aid in this kind of research.

To overcome such difficulties, the duo is crowdsourcing their research, asking the public to email them photographs of paintings that are germane to the study. An app and a public database of submissions are also in the works.

Of course, some painters were more skilled than others, while some dabbled in fantasy. And not all artistic styles value realism—so don’t send in a Cubist still life.

A good control is to compare an artist’s paintings of plant-based foods to their depictions of roses, which have long history of cultivation and have therefore changed very little over the centuries.

But the more art-historical examples of a given foodstuff the duo can find, the more likely researchers are to get an accurate sense of what it might have looked like before farmers set out to improve it, making it larger, more flavorful, and better textured.

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