in the water bucket
a melon and an eggplant
nodding to each other

— Yosa Buson

It is odd to think that a simple vegetable can be thought of as universal, ubiquitous, romantic, whimsical, socially important, dramatic, abstract, and fashionable at the same time. Artists, ranging from Vincent Van Gogh to a modern Japanese illustrator named Ryoono, have been inspired by the shapes, textures, forms, and colors, of these veggies.

Camille Pissarro, in his Vegetable Garden at the Hermitage near Pontoise, seeks to create a serene and harmonious atmosphere, associated with the seemingly idyllic image of peasant life. The warm yellow hues with touches of green, as well as the small and unobtrusive figure, enhance the idea that a vegetable garden signifies a simple and honest connection with the earth.

The luscious fruit and veggie paintings of 17th and 18th century Northern Europe, such as A Still Life with Fruit, Fish Game and a Goldfish Bowl reveal not only the realism and precision with which they could be depicted, but the grand qualities they were given. The dramatic lighting, immaculate execution, and majestic presentation of these banquet scenes reflects their importance as signs of wealth and prosperity, a quality much sought after in those times. Putting a slightly different spin on that approach, Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables by James Peale, resembles the characteristics of Spanish still lives, where every lettuce crease and squash texture conveys a dark and otherworldly meaning.

Van Gogh, on the other hand, uses his characteristic dashes to juxtapose orange and green tones to both contrast and enhance the entire image. Unlike Pissarro, he produces a more abstract portrait that envisions the vegetable garden in terms of color and shape rather than concept.

Japanese artist Ryoono continues in this abstract vein, focusing solely on the graphic form qualities of the veggie. If you’ve ever seen the striking lightning designs on a shiny organic eggplant, or the uninhibited green strokes on a yellow tomato, you know that this is entirely possible. Ryoono’s sprawling designs are all done by hand, and all feature the distinct yet free-flowing design elements that veggies are capable of inspiring. The stylish fashions intended as an ad campaign for a Brazilian supermarket also attest to the versatility of the veggie form.

Vegetable Garden at the Hermitage near Pontoise by Camille Pissarro • Vegetable Nirvana by Ito Jakuchu • Vegetable Garden in Montmartre by Vincent Van Gogh

A Still Life With Fruit, Fish Game And A Goldfish Bowl by Lucas Victor Schaefels • Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables by James Peale

We must not forget the lighter side of the veggie, the one which may occur after consuming a euphoric cherry tomato or ripe melon. Giuseppe Arcimboldi produced many paintings which put together smiling human forms solely by using veggies, and I bet that you yourself did not at first notice the Vegetable Gardener hiding behind his onion cheeks and leafy beard, slyly smiling from under his black bucket hat. Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of veggie whimsy is Ito Jakuchu’s Vegetable Nirvana, in which the dying Buddha is depicted as a dying white radish, surrounded by his veggie mourners such as tomato, eggplant, mushroom, and carrot. Whether this is a mockery of the traditional Buddhist scene, a serious contemplation about the philosophical meaning of veggies, or simply a playful diversion, it tops off the age-old exploration of the meaning of the veggie.

For me, however, it can be defined as the fresh smell on my fingers after picking tomatoes from a vine.

The Vegetable Gardener by Giuseppe Arcimboldi

Ad Campaign: Pão de Açúcar • Artwork by RYOONO