Artists never know what they’re depicting. Or rather, they may be depicting a lot more than they realise, and what seemed banal at the time becomes interesting later. Watch an old movie where the characters go to the cinema, and you’ll probably be struck more by the fact that half the people are smoking than by whatever action is supposed to grab your attention.
Historians try to glean hints of what everyday life was like in the past by examining incidental details in pictures and written accounts. In Vermeer’s Hat, for instance, Timothy Brook uses the objects and scenes in Dutch artwork to explore the development of international trade in the 17th century, examing where the fur for the hat came from for example.
Brian Wansink, of the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell, and his brother Craig, from the Religious Studies Department, Virginia Wesleyan College applied this approach to one of the most painted religious scenes in the history of art: The Last Supper, when Jesus and his followers shared a meal together for the last time (prompting French poet Paul Verlaine to remark that “You can’t judge a man by the company he keeps – Judas’s friends were very nice”).
The Wansinks wanted to see if the paintings revealed anything about how the average amount of food consumed over the ages has changed. Their results, published in the International Journal of Obesity, show that over the past thousand years, the size of the entrées in the paintings has grown by 69%, plate size has increased 66% and the size of the loaves of bread by 23%.
The study also shows how artists have unconsciously reflected increases in food production and affordability over the centuries. Another thing the paintings reflect is the fact that this change was extremely gradual until recently. According to records going back to the tenth century, it took a thousand years to increase wheat yields in England from around half a tonne a hectare to 2 tonnes. To increase from 2 tonnes to 6 tonnes took 40 years in the 20th century.
Portion sizes have also increased dramatically over the few decades. The average size of an American hamburger in the 1950s was just 1.5 ounces (42.5 g), compared with 8 ounces or more today (226 g), and when McDonald’s first opened in 1955, a serving of fries was 2.4 ounces and contained 210 calories, against today’s 7 ounces and 610 calories.
The impacts can be seen on any street, with obesity now a worry in all the developed countries and an increasing number of developing ones too, where the two extremes of malnourishment – obesity and hunger – may exist simulataneously.
Franco Sassi and colleagues from the OECD’s Health Division discuss strategies to prevent obesity in a working paper, and will be discussing the issues in depth a new book to be published later in the year.
The photo of what would happen to Michelangelo’s David if he adopted a modern diet and lifestyle is from an ad campaign for the German Olympic Sport Committee, “If you don’t move, you get fat”, by Scholz and Friends