Visualizing a healthy fruit

The apple (Malus domestica) has played a considerable role in our meals, our gardens, our history. Originating millions of years ago in the forests of central Asia, it is a member of the Rosaceae family, and related to other fruiting plants such as plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds, strawberries and raspberries.

Nicknamed the Wild (or Crab) Apple, the original species (Malus sieversii) produced very small fruit that were bitter and inedible. Since then, it has evolved into one of the most commonly grown and consumed fruits on the planet. Cultivated through centuries of human civilization, what better place to celebrate them than in works of art? 

Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug (detail), Paul Gauguin, 1889Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (Yorck Project)‎

Art history

One of the earliest people to adore apples were the ancient Romans. Favored for its fruit, flowers and shade, it was an important aspect of their mythology and beliefs, and associated with two goddesses – Pomona and Venus. Pomona was worshipped as the goddess of the fruit orchard, whereas Venus was known as the goddess of love. The apple itself, signified sexuality and love. 

In the miniature below, Venus is depicted with an apple in hand as she walks across a meadow dotted with flowers. Dressed in medieval attire, she is poised and elegant in the foreground, with an unknown city in distant silhouette. This 14th Century image of Venus was included in De Mulieribus Claris (Famous Women) which was published in 1374. Written by Italian author, Giovanni Boccaccio, the book contains biographies of other mythical and historical women, such as Juno, Isis, Minerva, Cleopatra and Eve.

Venus, De Mulieribus Claris, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1374Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)

Adam and Eve in Paradise (detail)Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)‎

16th Century

In sharp contrast to its loving depiction with Venus, the meaning of the apple was later juxtaposed to that of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In works of Christian tradition, it became a symbol for temptation and immorality, and was attached to the Fall of Man. Unwholesome and sinful, the connotation of 'evil' was embedded in many works of the 16th Century, including Renaissance painting.

A relevant example (above) is the woodcut, Adam and Eve in Paradise, by German painter and printmaker, Albrecht Dürer. Done in 1511, the couple are standing in the Garden of Eden beside a fruit laiden tree; a snake is tightly entwined around the trunk. Eve is pictured looking directly into Adam's face as she reaches out to take the apple from the serpent's mouth. At the same time, Adam is extending his right arm out towards the tree. There is the hint of conversation – to eat the fruit or not – a choice only they can decide. 

The Apple Peeler (detail), Cornelis Bisschop, 1667Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)

17th Century

Moving along to 17th Century Europe, scenes from everyday life were a common highlight in art of this time. One artist who painted during this period was Cornelis Bisschop. A master of Dutch painting, Bisschop was born in The Netherlands in 1630 and died unexpectedly in 1674, at the age of 44. He was noted for his still lifes, portraits, and historic, mythological and religious subject matter.

The Apple Peeler (above) was completed by Bisschop in 1667 and is painted in classic realistic style. Here, a young woman is seated in a sunlit doorway, slowly peeling the golden skin of an apple with a slender knife. The scene of the painting is informal and casual, and does without the traditional kitchen setting where food would most likely be prepared. 

The woman is, instead quietly concentrating on peeling the apple in a moment of peace. There is a feeling of ease – part of the skin has fallen on the floor, and a sock-covered foot is revealed from the edge of her long skirt, a brown leather shoe is depicted nearby. The woman looks relaxed and at ease. A broom leans against an adjacent wall, and leads us to question is she the lady of the house, or merely a maid, pausing to enjoy the juicy taste of an apple? 

Still life, bowl with apples (detail), Paul Cézanne, 1878-79Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (Yorck Project)‎

19th Century

In colors of reds, greens and yellows, the apple has had tasteful influence on the art world and is well-documented in the still lifes by Paul Cézanne (1829-1906). A French Post-Impressionist, he executed a large series of work with apples as a recurrent theme, joyously announcing, "I will astonish Paris with an apple!"

The oil on canvas, Still Life, Bowl with Apples (above) was painted between 1878 and 1879, and features a large platter of golden red and green apples on a rustic wooden table. Surrounded by the disheveled drapery of a white tablecloth, the image is painted in an expressive tone that conveys movement and energy. The artist's love of color is apparent – the bright unadulterated color an asset in his work. 

Other still lifes with apples by the artist include Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (1890s), Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples (c. 1877), Apples, Peaches, Pears, and Grapes (1879-80), Still Life with Apples (c. 1890), Still Life with Basket of Apples (1890-94), and Still Life with Tulips and Apples (1890-94).

Cézanne was known to closely study the contour of every object he painted, apples included. He patiently analyzed shapes, breaking them down into the simplest of forms. His unique way of seeing and depicting objects is said to have influenced artists of the Fauvism and Cubism art movements. 

Two children with bread and apple (detail), Luigi Bechi, c. 1870Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)


Sometimes sweet and crunchy, sometimes soft and sour, the apple has been a part of our culture for a long time. As naturalist and writer, Thoreau once rightfully said, “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”  

With many thousands of varieties of apples available in the world today, apples are not just useful for painting or drawing, but can be eaten raw, cooked, juiced, dried or processed into cider. Extremely versatile, it is unlikely we will ever run out of uses for apples – nor would we want to. They taste good, they look good, they are good!