The pumpkin is exclusively a New World plant, with all species of pumpkin tracing their origin back to central and northern Mexico, with certain species migrating northward.[i] The orange plant we know as a pumpkin today, the New England pumpkin, is only one of 26 different species of Cucurbita. Other Cucurbita species include different types of pumpkin and squash. The earliest evidence of human consumption of pumpkin dates to 7000-5500 B.C., discovered in “the Ocampo caves of Tamaulipas, Mexico” (469).[ii] Most importantly, the pumpkin was first introduced to Europe in the early 16th century (PDF 110).[iii]
The image itself features several members of the Cucurbita family. In the far right corner of the painting is a black and yellow striped pumpkin. Half masked by shadow, the pumpkin occupies the rearmost position of all of the fruits pictured. Despite this positioning, the pumpkin catches the eye. The curve of the gourd resting on top of a pair of watermelons intersects with the ray of light partially illuminates the painting. This point of intersection becomes a focal point of the painting, in opposition to the brightly colored fruit that draws attention on the other side of the canvas.
Notice the division created by the painting’s composition. Elevated above all the other fruits are the fruits in the basket. Their bright colors and the slight glare from the light attracts the eye, creating the second focal point of the image. There is a tension between these basket fruits and the pumpkin at the opposite end of the painting. The fruits in the basket, with their thin-skins, are ready for consumption. Outside of the basket are the rind fruits, carefully arranged by increasing thickness of rind. Closest to the basket lie the thinnest rinds, while the fruit with the thickest rinds are clustered around the pumpkin. These two focal points, the basket and the pumpkin, order the painting.
The basket itself is obviously well-crafted, and the fruit it contains are beautiful, with few blemishes. This basket would not look out of place in a noble household. Inside the basket appears to be two bunches of grapes, a group of plums, as well as several apples, pears, and peaches. None of these fruits have any sort of rind; all of them could be picked and immediately eaten. Nor are any of these fruits from the New World. Some, like the plum, are not native to Europe, but none came from the Americas (pdf citation). Pomegranates and figs, the two types of fruit arranged in front of the basket, are also Old World fruits. However, the fruits do not cleanly divide into a group of Old World fruits on the left and New World fruits on the right. The two large, green-grey gourds that flank the pumpkin on the right side are bottle gourds and “probably reached Europe from Africa at a very early date.”[iv] In addition, watermelon, pictured on the bottom-right, originates from Africa.[v] Despite the apparent exclusion of any New World fruits from the grouping on the left-hand side of the painting, this division does not order the painting as a whole.
The painting seems to make a value judgment about different types of fruit using the arrangement of the fruit to create the hierarchy. With its luxury, the fruit basket occupies the top position in the hierarchy, providing a point of comparison for all the other fruits depicted in the image. Moving away from the basket, the fruits immediately outside of the basket are a pair of pomegranates and a group of figs. The pomegranates are the furthest to the left of all the fruits in the painting, positioned beside the basket of fruit. Unsurprisingly, the pomegranate was traditionally considered to be “one of the most valuable of fruits.”[vi] Its position next to the basket, then, comes as little surprise. Figs too have enormous tradition to them. With their biblical significance, the figs’ position next to the fruit basket is of little surprise. From left to right, the rest of the fruit depicted are a triplet of what are either melons or pumpkins, two gourds, three watermelons, and a striped pumpkin.
Before moving further in the analysis, the identity of the three melons or pumpkins needs to be established. It appears that all three are pumpkins based on their visual appearance and their context within the painting. All three fruits closely resemble each other, so identifying one gives the identity of the other two. They all share the same ribbing as the large pumpkin in the corner, as well as the same stem shape. This visual resemblance to the other pumpkin in the painting, which is unquestionably a pumpkin, is a large clue to their identity. The two other types of fruit intermingled with the unidentified three are gourds and watermelon, both visually distinct. If the fruits present are pumpkins, gourds, and watermelons, then the painting consists of clearly defined groups of fruit. If, however, these three fruits are melons, then the painting takes on an unnecessary level of visual confusion. Considering the clarity of the rest of the painting and the visual similarity of the three fruits to the pumpkin already present, it seems incredibly likely that these fruits are pumpkins.
With that said, the four fruits with cutaway rinds provide a second ordering present in the painting. From left to right, the rinds increase in thickness. This organization reinforces the hierarchy present in the painting and also provides an explanation. Pumpkins are the one New World fruit depicted – why are they not located with the more luxurious basket fruits? Why do they appear with the ordinary fruits? With their thick rind, pumpkins have an enormous shelf life. Modern varieties will survive for 8 to 12 weeks after being picked.[vii] It comes as no surprise, then, that pumpkins were much more familiar to European eyes than other New World fruits.
The cutaway rind also highlights the internal structures of the fruit. The cross-sectioning exposes the interior seeds. Remember their use in the recipe for mole poblano: pumpkin seeds obviously prized to some degree. This use of the seed provides an apparent purpose to the splitting of the pumpkin, but this explanation is belied by the three other exposed fruits. Watermelon and pomegranate seeds have no similar culinary use, and the painting has such a strong sense of unity that this explanation seems doubtful. The fig offers a more likely explanation. Two figs are cut open; one with the skin slightly peeled back, the other as a cross-section. This combination reveals the fruit’s structure. Examining the three other sliced fruits, this explanation holds to be true. The watermelon especially reinforces this theory with its elaborate sectioning – the slices reveal that there is no inner cavity. As to the uncut fruit, there are two possible explanations. Either the uniformity of the structure makes a cross-section unnecessary, or the fruit would be familiar enough to European audiences to not require any sectioning. The plum and peach, with their pits, discredit the first explanation, but the second seems valid. All of the uncut fruits are Old World fruits, long grown in Europe, and none have structures as complex as the pomegranate or watermelon.
While given a prominent position, pumpkin seeds do not appear to be recognized for their culinary purpose in the painting. Pumpkins are lumped in with Old World fruits, suggesting a European familiarity with the fruit. Despite its exotic origins, the pumpkin is placed without remark alongside watermelons and gourds.
[ii] Ibid., 469.
[iv] Ibid., 12.
[v] Ibid., 14.
[vi] Ibid., 14.
[vii] Whitney B. Wyckoff, “How Long Does a Pumpkin Last?” National Public Radio, Oct. 24, 2011, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2011/10/05/141094067/how-long-does-a-pumpkin-last