Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

art depicting sweets has flourished for as long as sugar has had a steady presence on our tables. Sweets—sugar, chocolate, and the treats that can be made or baked with them—first appear as a recurring subject in Northern European still life painting, and their debut notably correlates with the rise of sugar production and trading. While sugar had long been cultivated in tropical climates and traded in small quantities as a luxury good, it was not until the early sixteenth century that large-scale sugar production was launched in the New World by European colonists. Built on African slave labor and plantation system production methods, sugar cultivation was a highly profitable colonial enterprise that, over time, transformed sugar and the goods it sweetened from aristocratic and patrician luxuries into staples enjoyed throughout society. Artists have been keen observers of this evolution, and the following brief overview shows how their work offers important ideas about the production, consumption, and social meaning of sweets.