Dine & Wine

The Gift of Pomona – Pears in Art

Candy Bedworth 20 January 2022 min Read

Since ancient times the pear tree has been honored as a sacred tree symbolizing good health, happiness, and prosperity. At this time of the year, farmers and growers are storing their precious harvest, laying down fruits to last us through the darker days. So this is a perfect time to take a look at the humble pear in art.

Pears in Art
Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life with Quince Pears, 1888, Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany.

The pear has been with us since prehistoric times – dried slices have even been unearthed in Swiss cave dwellings from the Ice Age. In so many cultures across the world we find references to the pear, signifying abundance and sustenance.

The Chinese believe the pear symbolizes immortality and it is a popular gift to leave at family shrines. It has been chronicled in Chinese writing and art for over a thousand years.

Pears in Art
After Qian Xuan, Pear Blossoms, c. 1280, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Pears are found in Homer’s 9th century BCE epic poem, The Odyssey. It is one of the “gifts of the gods” which grew in the garden of the King of the Phaeacians. Depictions of fruit in art can be dated back 3000 years to Ancient Egypt, where still life paintings of foodstuffs were thought to become tangible in the afterlife, ready for the deceased to feast upon. These include the pear, sacred to Isis.

Pears in Art
Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases, Pompeii 70 CE, National Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

In Ancient Rome, decorative mosaics containing food signified the hospitality of the host and celebrated the seasons. Furthermore, in both Greek and Roman mythology, pears are sacred to Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance. Paintings of pears were found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Pears in Art
Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, 1488, Accademia Cararra Museum, Bergamo, Italy. 

The pear is found in Renaissance religious paintings, representing Christ’s love and the mother Mary. Perhaps the most famous is Giovanni Bellini’s 15th Century painting, shown above, often referred to as Madonna of the Pear. Carlo Crivelli produced the monumental piece below slightly earlier in 1470, showing mother and child cradling a sumptuous fruit that is literally as big as the child Christ’s head.

Pears in Art
Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Donor, 1470, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo‘s portraits were made up entirely of fruit and vegetables. See his famous portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, reimagined as Vertumnus, Roman god of metamorphoses in nature. See that luscious blush pear right in the middle of that fantastical face.

Pears in Art
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, 1590-91, Skokloster Castle, Skokloster, Sweden. 

Pears are a common feature of Flemish flower and fruit paintings from the 15th to the 17th century. In the 19th century the Impressionists also found favor with the humble pear. Vincent van Gogh painted both the flowering tree as well as the fruit. Paul Cézanne included the pear in his many still lifes. Even Picasso got in on the trend, as seen in our title image.

Pears in Art
Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples and Pears, 1891-92, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Cubist Georges Braque saw his pears in a very distinctive way, as did Juan Gris.

Pears in Art
Juan Gris, Pears and Grapes on a Table, 1913, Manhattan Arts International, New York, NY, USA.

Of course the shape of the pear may represent the female form – fruitfulness and femininity combined. Georgia O’Keefe‘s sensual pears emphasize the graceful form that might be person or fruit.

Pears in Art
Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled, (Two Pears), 1921, Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, USA.

Samuel Bak uses the pear repeatedly in his work. Stone pears crumble into ruins, pears hang in harnesses, we see a pear on an Altar, a desolate pear next to a pair of empty boots. For this Holocaust survivor, the pear symbolizes something other than health and abundance.

Pears in Art
Samuel Bak, Mother’s Pear, 1967. Kunst-Archive.

Can pears be controversial? Absolutely! A painting by British artist Sir William Nicholson was investigated by the BBC program “Fake or Fortune”. Experts disagreed on the provenance of this still life of a jug and pears, purchased for £165,000. The authenticity of those pears is still in dispute today.

Pears in Art
Sir William Nicholson, Still Life with Jug and Pears, 1930s. Clip from BBC TV “Fake or Fortune.” BBC.

The pear is a wonderful and hardy fruit, widely grown in the temperate regions of the world, with varied size, shape, texture, and flavor. In Spain in particular, they seem to have an intense love for them. There is an expression, esto es la pera, literally translated as ‘this is the pear’, meaning a particularly enjoyable experience. The English idiom “fit as a fiddle” translates to estar mas sano que una pera, indicating that someone is “healthier than a pear”.

Enjoy these images and maybe even pick up a pear and enjoy the sensual experience of holding that voluptuous heart-shaped weight, breathe in the sweet scent, and feel the sugary grittiness melting on your tongue. Esto es la pera!

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