In the seventeenth century, Dutch artists produced more than a quarter of a million still life and genre paintings, over half of which portrayed lemons, whole, halved or peeled. Why were these waxy, knobbly yellow fruit painted so frequently? They were not easy to grow in Northwestern Europe, neither were they widely available. They were not the sweetest fruit, nor the prettiest. The lemon twist in paintings offers us a tool to understand the desires of the society of its time, from lemon’s lure to lemon’s cure.
Banquet Still Life, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644
A 2016 study statistically analysed hundreds of artworks from 1500-2000 to interpret the role of food in paintings. Researchers Brian Wansink, Anupama Mukund and Andrew Weislogel found that foods depicted were linked to people’s identities and viewpoints rather than what they really ate. Lemons in particular had the largest depiction in paintings across all art periods. These images were social constructs rather than reality. They show the preferences of the artists and the patrons, as well as the art market at the time.
We see lemons in still life paintings before this time in Italy and Spain, and also later all over Europe. Lemons added balance to paintings by providing a contrast to darker objects, angular forms and smooth textures. They enabled the artist to show their virtues in drawing details and colour. And perhaps most importantly, they added a multi-sensory dimension to a painting: one could see their bright colour and almost smell their fresh scent; look at their shiny rinds and imagine their bittersweet taste. However, the lemon, so ubiquitous in paintings, had not yet entered the kitchens of common folk in the 17th century.
The lemon, citrus limon, comes from Southeast Asia and first appeared in Italy during the Middle Ages around 1000 AD. It was first cultivated in Liguria, and then in the south of Italy and Sicily, and later spread by the Arabs into Andalusia (today’s Spain) in the 13th century. Two decades later, when lemons were successfully cultivated in the most northern point in Europe, Lake Garda in northern Italy, they could be exported in large quantities to the north. This coincides with Dutch independence from Spain, and the direct access to trade with the Mediterranean.
When the growing merchant class in Holland acquired a taste for and access to this once-exotic fruit, they started to grow it in private citrus gardens locally. The most influential Dutch cookbook of the time, The Sensible Cook (1669), which was written for well-to-do middle-class families, calls for lemons in twenty-nine recipes in various forms: fresh, salted or preserved, juiced, sliced, peels, and zest.
Art historian Mariët Westermann, an expert in 17th century Dutch paintings, asked why there were so many lemons in Dutch artwork in the period and especially why so many of them were peeled. In a lecture for Yale University Art Gallery entitled The Lemon’s Lure she explained how she believes that the peeled lemon was a motif that engaged three predominant interests in Dutch society at the time: commerce, natural history and paintings. According to Westermann, in 1613 Floris van Dijk began painting apple peel, and it was Pieter Claesz who used lemon peel for the first time in 1621. From there the fashion caught on.
Still life with a Gilt Cup, Pieter Claesz, 1635
So maybe it was a fashion for the art market of the time? Something that created a certain effect, a formula that worked: a tipped silver tazza, a chalice in Venetian glass, silk tablecloth and a comforting abundance of fruit in all colours and shapes.
Hence, lemons in paintings became a symbol of luxury and a sign of wealth along with precious objects from all over the world – Venetian glass, silver, silk and even parrots. They were emblematic of a period of discovery, of new places and new flavours. This was the golden age of lemons, in the golden age of Dutch painting.
Sometimes a peeled lemon would offer a moral lesson: that riches accumulated thanks to trade and economic growth were nothing more than futile objects of pride – vanities. In vanitas still life artworks we see fruits in combination with symbols that link to other senses, such as musical instruments, and objects that remind us of the passing of time, such as watches. On the one hand we are called to admire desirable objects, and on the other we are confronted with the transience of life and the futility of pleasure. The pleasures of excess versus the transience of life offer a parallel to the lemon: its aroma is pleasant but the fruit is deceptively sour.
A Table of Desserts, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1640
A glimpse at genre paintings, depicting the everyday lives of the elite, reveal to us some of the many ways lemons were used in households that could afford them. A striking example of this is a painting by Gerard ter Borch showing a curling lemon peel draping from the edge of a wine glass stirred by a young man. He is offering this lemonade to a nearly hypnotised young woman under the watchful eyes of an older woman, perhaps a chaperon. Lemonade was a cure for lovesickness, as citrus fruit was believed to cool the body and the desire brewing inside it.
A Glass of Lemonade. Gerard ter Borch, c. 1664
The popular appeal of still life and genre paintings, and the wish to make meaning through the temptation of lemons disappeared by the 19th century. Yet the bright yellow fruit often finds its way into paintings, photographs and film to this day.
Lemons nowadays might be stripped from their symbolism of exotic abundance, or their value as a highly-prized market item, but they continue to enrich our food and our senses with their pulp, peel and everything in between.