October 27, 2018

A Brief Introduction

Since the beginning of winemaking, around 6000 BC. in the Caucuses, wine has played an important role in many civilisations. It has left a rich cultural legacy far beyond the folk art and traditions shown in most wine museums. In painting, wine’s long history starts with Egyptian frescoes dating from the 15th century BC. This scene of grapes being harvested from a trellis was discovered in the tomb of Nebamun, scribe and steward to the queen of Thoutmosis IV. The harvest would take place in early summer, just before the start of the rainy season in mid July.


Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1422-1411 BC. - Theban Necropolis, Valley of The Nobles 



Art history has always been linked to social history. Manet, who played a significant role in the representation of wine in art, believed that art should reflect life. “Art is the expression of a social organisation, of society in general – of its beliefs, of the way in which it sees itself and the world around it” (Georges Duby, Art and Society in the Middle Ages. Polity Press, 2000). Wine, when represented on canvas, is no exception to this rule. Such images are documentary, journalistic: they tell us the role played by wine in mythology, religion, daily and social life. Wine has been used as a social marker in every historical era.


With 724 works on display (of which 600 are pictorial works), The Virtual Wine Museum recounts the history of wine, its role and uses through the ages. It is the ‘imaginary museum’ described by André Malraux; not an ephemeral product of the imagination, but a significant collection of artworks by great and minor masters. Host institutions, especially in the USA and the Netherlands, are more and more active in the diffusion of their art collections online. Unfortunately, French museums are still reluctant to take the leap.



Manuscript painting was a prevalent art form in the Middle Ages. Like frescoes or easel paintings, illuminations are done by hand. They serve to decorate or illustrate texts, often as part of handwritten manuscripts. Until the 12th century, manuscripts were copied out in monasteries, where they contributed to prayer and meditation. From the 13th century, however, the expansion of universities and administrative bodies and greater public literacy saw a sharp increase in secular texts among the reading public. Illuminations can tell us much about the history and place of wine in medieval society.



Wine is a companion for every occasion. Considered an important foodstuff for much of history, it restores the sick, encourages workers in their efforts and accompanies family meals. Cafés are like a substitute family for certain customers as well as a place for killing time. Wine is linked with friendship, social encounters, romance and celebration. From cheerful inebriety to all-out drunkenness, some artists have used their representations of wine to remind viewers of the dangers of alcohol. While the notion of ‘good taste’ dates back many centuries, the concept was reinvented at the end of the 17th century. Good taste was no longer seen as the preserve of the rich, but as something to which the middle classes could also aspire. Connoisseurs would go to great pains to find the right words to describe the aroma and taste of a good wine.​



Its incomparable taste and effects meant that wine became a symbol of both earthly and heavenly pleasures. At the ‘Gods’ banqueting table’, good food goes hand in hand with voluptuous pleasure. Wine resembles blood, that vital fluid symbolising heredity and alliance. As such, it is the privilege of gods as well as kings. To drink, to share the ‘blood of the Earth’, allows the drinker a taste of immortality. From Osiris to Christ, via Dionysos, wine is the emblem of divine rebirth.



The wine cycle, from vine to barrel, has been widely represented in miniatures, illuminations, stained glass and sculpture; however, the subject has been somewhat neglected by master painters, who tend to focus on harvest scenes.



Many artists have portrayed wine in still life, where it can play a symbolic or decorative role. This dates back to Antiquity, when wine featured in mosaics and frescoes in the Vesuvius region of Italy. Easel painting permitted the development of still life painting from the end of the 16th century. The genre peaked in popularity in the 17th century. Certain works even give us information on the diet and beliefs of the period.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
The Oyster Lunch, de Troy
The Grape Harvest or Autumn, Goya
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Over a quarter of the 514 pictorial works on display, not including illuminations, are the work of great masters. Some of the artists seem to include wine in their paintings at the first opportunity! For example, Vermeer would dedicate seven of his thirty-five known works to the negative effects of wine. Whether great or minor masters, artists remind us of wine’s role as witness to our social and cultural history. A huge number of great masters have represented wine in their work, including Giotto, Bellini, Leonard de Vinci, Bosch, Dürer, Michelangelo, Titian, Lotto, Pontormo, Tintoretto, Véronèse, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, El Greco, Carracci, Caravaggio, Rubens, Hals, Poussin, Georges de La Tour, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Watteau, Tiepolo, Vermeer, Hogarth, Chardin, Goya, Turner, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Picasso, Miro et Bacon.

Still-Life with Oysters, Pieter Claesz
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Officer and Laughing Girl, Vermeer
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The Grape Harvest or Autumn, Goya