October 15, 2011

Willem Claesz. Heda: Still Life with Gilt Cup (1635); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the artistic depiction of food, flowers or other inanimate objects gradually developed into a separate genre. Before then, still life elements merely appeared as a component of paintings that were devoted to other subjects, like allegorical and biblical scenes. In the Netherlands, still life works flourished, particularly in the seventeenth century.
Willem Claesz. Heda (1594-1680) was one of the most talented among the numerous Dutch and Flemish masters who specialized in this category. He was famous for his depiction of food, especially the type called ‘onbijtgens’ (small breakfasts), usually paintings of bread, fish and other things that were traditionally eaten towards the end of the morning. Many art historians have pointed out possible symbolic significance of such scenes, like a warning against gluttony, but I believe that Heda rather saw them as an opportunity to show off his sublime ability to depict different textures and create illusionistic effects.
The table we’re looking at is richly dressed with precious tableware, oysters and spices. Apart from some color accents, like the yellow peel of the lemon or the gilt cup, Heda mainly used subdued tones. This almost-monochrome palette provides a sense of unity, while the intentional disarray of the objects and the placing of the two dishes, that look like they could fall off the table at any moment, contribute to the suggestion of depth.

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