Friday, May 28, 2010

Dutch Still Life - Willem Heda's "Still Life with Pastry and Silver Pitcher" at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

I love the 17th Century Dutch Still Lifes. Scholars still argue what they are about, but coming as they did out of the post-Reformation Netherlands, my vote goes to the more religious interpretation; I think they are more than simply pretty pictures of expensive things.

Since the Reformation in Holland banned religious painting as idolatry, paintings of overtly religious scenes changed from devotional images to historical ones, and the pious found new ways to express their religious convictions through the art they commissioned. There were still religious paintings: in fact, at the same time as these paintings were popular, Rembrandt and other Dutch artists painted many religious themes. However, they were not intended as objects of devotion as previously, but as historical ones, telling stories from the Bible which were applicable moral lessons in the 17th Century. These Still Life paintings could just be pretty pictures of fancy, hard to paint objects, as some assert, but I agree with those who interpret them as religious messages.

Beginning rather humbly as a genre in the early 1600s, the view of the tabletop was originally from a decidedly high viewpoint: standing, looking down on the scene. The objects featured were everyday objects arranged as a group, usually with a dark background and the front edge of the table showing.

As the century progressed and the Still Life genre became more popular, the images also became more complex, both in the number and variety of objects, and in the inclusion of the corner of the table. This was also the era of the “gentleman collector,” who amassed rare objects and expensive, fragile serving pieces from around the world. These paintings reflected the growing interest in “curiosity cabinets” and collections of exotic and expensive items among the Dutch upper and middle classes.

And yet there is more to these paintings than than a display of fine and rare objects. There is more to them than bravura painting techniques, a wealth of texture and color, glass, liquids and metals painted in nearly photo-realistic style. The condition and placement of the objects in relation to the tabletop and the viewer would also have communicated a religious message to the contemporary viewer. In these 17th Century Still Lifes, references to long life and “getting right with God” abound. They would have been recognized instantly in the 17th Century, but the symbols are all but lost on a modern viewer.

To examine some of the iconography of the 17th Century Dutch still life, I am going to look at Willem Heda’s (1594-1680) Still Life with Pastry and a Silver Pitcher, at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands. Painted in 1658, it is a late and splendid example of the tabletop still life.

We are looking at the table from barely above the level of its surface. We are looking almost across the top of the sumptuous pastry which dominates the left side of the canvas. This low perspective pushes all the objects together so that they visually overlap, block and interact with one another, and we see very little of the table’s surface. Some of the objects reflect other objects. In the pitcher, for example, we can clearly see the reflection of the crab, the wineglass, the overturned Nautilus cup, and the multi-paned window which illuminates the scene. In the silver plate on the left, we can see the reflection of the very costly blue patterned Chinese-import plate leaning above it.

The painting presents a strong horizon line directly through its center. Along this central band is some very fine textural representation. The gigantic, perfect pastry on the far left, the crust of the bread, the peel and fruit of the lemon, the iridescence of the Nautilus shell, the fine weave of the linen napkins, the gleam of the leather knife sheath, and a myriad other details create an interplay of color and texture which pulls us right into the painting, as we find ourselves examining the veracity of the smallest details and interpreting them as metaphors for the rich textures of our lives.

My favorite detail is the fine Venetian glass flute in the center background. Filled with a bright red liquid, it may refer to the blood of Christ, if you agree with to the religious interpretation of the Still Life. If you do go with this interpretation, then the unbroken bread in the foreground and the wine in the Venetian glass would be clear references to the Last Supper. If you don’t agree with the religious interpretation of the painting, then you still must admit the objects are rendered masterfully.

The contemporary viewer would have been as impressed with the quality of the rendering as we are today, but would have been instantly aware of the Vanitas, “We’re all going to die,” “Get right with God” theme represented. Indeed, I think the religious interpretation is the real text and subject of the entire genre.

In this painting, as in so many others, the plates are hanging precariously over the edge of the table – the one on the left seems to stay on the table only of its own volition! These plates could fall off the table at any time, which the contemporary viewer would have understood as a reference to the uncertainty of life.
The long, unbroken peel of the lemon on the right expresses the wish for a long, unbroken life for the person who commissioned this painting. The wineglass is not empty, but it is not full either: the implication being you don’t have too much time to get right with God. The coruscating Nautilus shell cup, lying on its side is clearly empty and not fulfilling any task, reminding us that we are to be useful as well as valuable in this life, because it is short. The knife, sheathed but uncapped, is unusable at this time unless removed from its sheath, but is still balanced precariously over the edge of the table.

Think about the crab for a moment. Some might consider the inverted crustacean to be a jarring and inappropriate juxtaposition with the other elements of the composition. An expensive and rare delicacy, it would only be served on the table of a wealthy person, however, dead and inert, and with one leg removed and placed on the plate in front, it is at the same time an expensive delicacy rendered photograhically and another reference to the Vanitas theme. The contemporary viewer would have been as wise as we are to how unpleasant this item will be in just a day or two. “Get right with God, the time is short before you start smelling too, no matter how expensive or rare you might be” is the message here.

In many of the paintings of this genre, we see the edge of the table, which often has a chip or knick in it, referring to the impermanence of life. Often a candle burned low and extinguished sits among the valuable items, the extinguished flame an obvious reference to the ephemeral nature of life. In this painting, the top of the wine carafe is open and the contents are evaporating. Even that large, beautiful pastry (meat pie?) on the left won’t be so pretty, nor smell so heavenly after a few days, so eat up!

Life is uncertain. It is a banquet to be savored and lived fully. We are to be useful and productive. We are to shine and reflect the beauty of those around us. The presence of the salt reminds us that we are the “salt of the earth.” These are the messages hidden in these beautifully chosen and artfully arranged objects. They may not be the sweeping, baroque, Counter-Reformation Saints and Madonnas of Ruebens and Van Dyke, Heda’s contemporaries in neighboring Catholic Flanders, nor his fellow countryman Rembrandt’s starkly lit biblical scenes, but they convey a religious theme nonetheless, and unlike some of the objects depicted in them, Dutch Still Life paintings will be around for us to quibble over for a long, long time.


  1. This is a marvelous picture and insightful analysis. Thank you!
    I fell in love with Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century as I was researching my book (forthcoming), Lemon: A Global History (Reaktion Books), as the lemon is so often portrayed in still-lifes, especially by my two favorites, Heda and Pieter Claesz. The lemon was exotic and expensive in 17th century Holland, and the peel was often used to flavor spirits. The unwinding peel catches the light and the viewer's eye in a powerful way too. But I've never heard the explanation you gave, that the unwinding peel was a wish for the unbroken long life of the person who commissioned the painting. Very intriguing. Do you remember where you heard that explanation?
    Thank you for such a wonderful blog. Now I'm going to look at more of it.
    Toby Sonneman

  2. I heard this interpretation from Eric Denker of the National Gallery, Washington, during a gallery talk on Dutch Still Lifes.