Food, Art and the Pop Culture of Instagram

Cezanne, still life, oil on canvas, 1895

He takes some time to set up the still life. The apples picked from the market cost a small fortune, as leftover coins jangled in his pocket, just enough for un café later. The green vase, an empty wine bottle, the water jug — all props considered for this new painting. A blank canvas is set up on the easel. The artist pulls across a window curtain, noticing the blues and greens, and decides to add the porcelain water pitcher, cloth napkins, some oranges plucked from a tree. One can only imagine what Paul Cezanne would do with an iPhone and an Instagram account.

Claude Monet, Les Galettes, oil on canvas, 1882

The Impressionist artists of Paris captured images of their food with paint daubs on canvas, like Claude Monet, who was just as much a food obsessed gourmand as he was a painter. He began his day with an early breakfast: omelette aux fines herbes, sausage, toast, jam and tea, then off to paint water lilies until lunchtime, as it was served promptly at eleven thirty in the morning. Monet employed a cook, grew his own vegetables, planned seasonal menus, ate fresh eggs from his own chickens, and had a cider press. Today he would be considered a homesteader, living off the grid in Giverny. We know all about his beautiful nymphéas (water lilies) and the Japanese bridge in his garden, however, his paintings of food were mostly still lifes of fruit, sun-dappled picnics, and an inviting table setting for tea and cake underneath a shady tree.

Claude Monet, Women in the Garden (detail) 1866, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

At Monet’s house, guests and family enjoyed organic food without worrying about genetically modified organisms, pesticides, or additives. His housekeeper prepared dishes such as gratin de champignons made with foraged field mushrooms. A chervil soup might begin an afternoon meal, and a crème-laden gâteaux served for dessert. In mid-April, Japanese apple trees blossom outside Monet’s kitchen window, inspiring tarte aux pommes after the apples ripened. Imagine the #foodstagram posts with all of that edible bounty.

Claude Monet, Still Life with Melon, oil on canvas, 1872

Homemade compotes of cherries, plums and peaches were served with cookies and sponge cake upon blue and white porcelain plates. Monet painted a still life of a jar of preserved peaches upon canvas rather than of snapping a photo with an iPhone and posting it to Instagram. It’s difficult to imagine Monet doing anything other than painting.

Claude Monet’s paintings were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints that decorated his dining room walls, some of which were fortuitously acquired because the boulangerie used the prints rather than newspaper to wrap their daily baguettes one morning. It seems food and art have gone together for quite a long time.

Claude Monet, Apples and Grapes, oil on canvas, 1879

The Dutch masters came before the French impressionist artistes. They painted banketje or “banquet pieces” and ontbijtjes or “breakfast pieces” of halved and peeled fruit, fine silverware, grapes and flowers, symbols of everyday life, expressing the metaphorical, making food tangible to the eye.

Claesz Van Dijck, Still Life With Cheese, oil on panel, 1615

Watercolor studies of fruit fascinated Leonardo da Vinci. He might have enjoyed sharing his daily imagery as Instagram posts in HDR. Renaissance painters could have layered the colors of fruits, shellfish, autumnal foraged vegetables and goblets of wine in multiple filters instead of oil glazes, opting for slumber and perpetua, a little sharpen and saturation filtering carefully adjusted to exacting amounts, then finally, the lux filter.

Jan van Kessel, Still Life on a Table with Fruit and Flowers, oil on copper, 1650s
Francisco de Zurbarán, 1633, oil on canvas, Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena

Standing above the fruit placed on my wooden table, Nikon around my neck, I study each angle and shape, how the colors complement and offset. Is the yellow too distracting by placing the lemons a little outside the frame? Yellow is the first color our eyes notice. I look into the viewer: each lemon leaf intrigues my eye. I know color as an artist — oil pigments: sap green for the leaves, medium cadmium yellow for the lemons. I visually frame the stem with leaf on the upper left, and another leaf on the lower right to create asymmetry. This is the craft of modern Instagram artists — we seek beauty in composition to express our love of food.

Stephanie Kordan, Still Life with Figs and Peaches, Nikon to iPhone, lux filter, 2015 (@stephaniedujour on Instagram)

The lemon cake is centered on a black tray with a silver rim, a family heirloom. It has cooled down enough from the oven. I glaze it with freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice mixed with a spoonful of powdered sugar. The lemons were “locally-sourced” from a friend’s backyard tree. #forage #fruit (I’m thinking in hashtags already.) I cut a few in half to appear as if they were just used for the cake next to my still-life dessert. As I squint through my viewfinder, I notice the sunlight is changing.

Stephanie Kordan, Meyer Lemon Cake, Nikon to iPhone, lux filter, 2015 (@stephaniedujour on Instagram)

Modern food photography has changed with the emergence of Instagram. Even our food magazines mimic current Instagram trends: Shot from above, weathered white paint upon a rustic wooden table surface, an earthenware plate, avocado toasts garnished with pomegranate seeds. Next to the plate, a carefully placed knife, a halved avocado with intact pit, a muslin kitchen cloth crinkled from someone’s hand, as if it all came together without mise en place for the camera. (The bokeh explains it all happened so easily.) We should notice each bead of water on the pomegranate aril with the awe of a hungry yogini after daybreak asanas, while the green of the avocado is all that we seek, sliced in gentle layers upon the lightly toasted to golden perfection gluten-free bread. Gwyneth Paltrow would just love it.

You’ve seen the couple at dinner: they order from the waiter, and once their dishes arrive, iPhones are out, poised above their plates. If it’s dim in the restaurant, one holds their phone flashlight to bounce it off the wall or napkin as a makeshift softbox. He fiddles with his screen, tapping it for focus. She holds her arm, looking eagerly at her cooling dish, hungry. Romantic dinners by candlelight are not what they used to be.

Some Instagram feeds are full of plates smothered in pasta swirls, burrata blobs, candlelit cocktails, stacks of towering sandwiches, fancy avocado toasts, mountains of macarons, squid and sushi platters, oozing egg yolks, rainbow sprinkle donuts, and the ubiquitous ice cream cone.

@disneyfoodfun via Instagram
#icecreamcone screen capture via Instagram

There’s a dripping vanilla lavender scoop perched atop a strawberry balsamic scoop, upon a mascarpone fig scoop, held in point of view by the perfectly manicured hand, and that’s when you notice the same colors of the ice cream match the nail lacquer. There’s posts of babies eating ice cream, smiling faces, hands holding up scoops — #ice cream is a worldwide favorite. So are #burgers dripping with sauce and cheese.

Instagram screen capture via @stirandstyle

The hashtag #burger has 4,923,248 posts, and the hashtag #icecream garners 17,947,885 posts (so far). The lust for licking an ice cream cone and nomming into a burger is universal.

#Icecreamcones screen capture via Instagram

Foodism has melted into our sociological Instagram pot and emulsified with pop culture art. Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can paintings were ahead of their time.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, synthetic polymer paint

Andy Warhol would have absolutely loved Instagram. I can imagine what his stylized selfie would look like and all the filters he’d apply.

#icecreamcone screen capture via Instagram

Hashtags describe the scenario: #food #instafood #foodporn #foodie #yummy #foodporn #foodstagram #foodgasm followed by cute emojis galore. I am just as guilty of emoji exploitations, overzealous hashtaggery and staged platings. Almost parallel to a fashion shoot, styling food for an Instagram post has become a trend of its own.

Some creative bloggers and artists mix up their food frenzied feeds with fashion, like June Quan of Stir & Style @stirandstyle, and the Dutch artist Rommy Kuperus @rommydebommy who creates her playful food art into functional handbags and wearable accessories.

@rommydebommy “Sprinkles Cake Purse” via Instagram
Rommy Kuperus @rommydebommy fun functional food fashion via Instagram

Food as art is visually appealing. Colors pop, textures entice. We are food voyeurs lusting for a sneak peek. The hashtag #foodporn reveals our fascination with food as sexy as flesh, where sex and food melt together, and we can’t decide which we want to taste first.

#foodporn screen capture via Instagram

I’ve often wondered why we feel so compelled to photograph our meals for Instagram posts instead of just enjoying them anonymously. The act of eating has become shared before it is actually consumed, a sort of kiss and tell rather than a genuine experience of the food for personal pleasure.

#foodporn screen capture via Instagram

If we snapped photo after photo of our lover’s mouth before kissing them, what kind of lover would we really be? The act of eating is a similar pleasure to kissing.

#kissme screen capture via Instagram

Being in the moment with our breakfast bowl of açai berry purée garnished with blueberries, pomegranate and chia seeds, we are visually savoring something known as a #breakfastbowl, hungrily captured with our iPhones before delving into it with a spoon, lest we keep it privately in our mental memory cache without an image to categorize in our dietary diary.

Eating without taking a photo seems old-fashioned, perhaps impossible for some, as the compulsion to photograph, filter and post defines us and our daily documented indulgences. Avocado toast, for instance, and the hashtag #avocadotoast, has 75,759 posts to its name (to date). Avocado lovers across the world can compare their best avocado toast arrangement, which makes quite a fascinating social phenomena if you really think about it.

However, the sport of food hashtags and their edible purpose is simmering in the sauces of Instagram dilettantes. Consider the drool-worthy master food photographer Andrew Scrivani, who boasts over 18k followers on Instagram. We all could learn something from The New York Times food column contributor Scrivani as he gives sage advice for creating a more mouth-watering Instagram feed:

“Find the scene, not just the pre-eaten plate. It’s a lifestyle moment, so capture it that way.” — Andrew Scrivani

This upper crust of professional food photographers (such as Scrivani) shoot for magazines and cookbooks in both print and pixel, keeping digital company at the table with the growing crowd who hashtag their every bite. These talented photographers can highlight a drop of syrup in a beam of morning sunlight as it is slowly poured upon a perfect stack of pancakes. It seems effortless, almost pornographic. The food stylists that create these plated centerfolds of edible desire are foodie fluffers for the photographer’s food-as-pornography compositions.

All food photos are tagged in a stew of descriptive monikers such as #foodporn and #foodgasm in the salubrious salivating underbelly of Instagram. One’s runny #yolkporn is another’s #foodporn in the hashtag hungry land of #instafood. It can be overwhelming to look at so many images of food. Sometimes I feel like my eyes just ate a huge virtual bag of potato chips and loaded cheese fries.

@lumadeline screen capture via Instagram
@lumadeline screen capture via Instagram
@breakfastcriminals screen capture via Instagram

The popular #breakfastbowl reaches elevated heights as New York City based Ksenia of @breakfastcriminals takes me into her yogini portal of açai bowl mandalas via her Instagram feed.

My own Instagram feed is full of attempts to capture the fleeting beauty of foamy mattcha lattes, green slivers of avocado upon whole grain toast, bountiful breakfast bowls, and various other lovely #foodstagram posts. I am not immune to the habits of daily Instagram sharing, yet I pause to capture, filter and share only the most select dishes, dinners and delights these days. I add more personal photos (and #selfies) in with food photos, mostly because I want my viewer to feel connected with the hands that craft the food and snap the photo. I searched my two most used personal hashtags to see what I’ve been doing on Instagram. In a way, it’s like Googling your name.

I am averse to using flash in dark dining rooms and decide to pass on the posting of such affairs. I want to pepper my feed with more personal style, not inundate my follower with every plateful, and sometimes I’ll share a recipe to go with the imagery. This year in Instagramland, I aspire to take better shots of food and add more recipes with posts, meanwhile I’ll graze through other Instagram feeds to feed my yearning for art and food.

The most tempting Instagram #food captures are taken by the busy hands of chefs while they are in the midst of running a kitchen, or traveling through the culinary sights, eats and plates of other countries. Sometimes they travel in pairs and ride on animal swings in Vietnam together.

@chefsangyoon and @offalchris screen capture via Instagram

Scrolling through one chef’s account, my eyes are dazzled by luxurious platings of caviar, egg yolks, crispy pork belly, foie gras terrine, scallion buttermilk biscuits, brioche French toast. The posts seduce, mixed here and there with the chef’s own point of view.

It becomes addictive, this voyeuristic and vicarious view through the looking glass of Instagram #food. After a spell of scrolling through posts like these, I am inspired to cook. Not only do I want to spend my day in the kitchen, but I want to create beauty and art with food. The senses are overwhelmed by visuals alone, and as I finally set down my iPhone, I am dizzy from all of the visions of #food, #foodporn, #foodstagram, #instafood — I cannot think solely in terms of a pinch of salt, dash of vanilla, deglaze, concassé, chiffonade, mise en place — all imagery swirls around in my mind in food emojis, hashtags, and top-styled platings.

@chef_morimoto screen capture via Instagram
@ferran_adria screen capture via Instagram

Chef Ferran Adrià’s culinary talents at his late great El Bulli restaurant bring gastronomy and art together. Adrià’s notebook sketches on exhibit express the artistic creativity in the kitchen, making the connection between artists and chefs. As described via The Drawing Center:

“Adrià pushes culinary boundaries with both knowledge and wit, transforming the art of cooking into an art of food. Hundreds of notebooks have been filled with concepts, ideas, collaged photographs, and loose sketches for new dishes for elBulli.”

Food is an art, and here is where it transcends the plate — from the canvases of the Dutch Masters to the Pop Art of Warhol, up to the current cultural times of Instagram, we have revered the visual beauty of food. Whether it’s a painting on canvas or a post on your phone, food has captivated our senses. Perhaps modern art has found its place at the dining table.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963, oil on canvas

Stephanie Kordan is a food writer, blogger, photographer and painter, exploring Los Angeles’ restaurants and cafés for that perfect Instagram shot. Author of The Sensual Foodie blog, find her on Instagram @stephaniedujour where her adventurous vegetarian ways sometimes venture beyond the garden side of eating.