Rediscovered after 200 years — Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Dutch Golden Age masterpiece

Specialist Clementine Sinclair tells the story behind a banquet scene — closely related to one held by the Louvre — that has spent two centuries in a private collection, and is now being offered in London on 15 December

Around 1635, the Dutch still life painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684) packed his bags and left Leiden for Antwerp. The cities are only 85 miles apart, a couple of days by boat or horse, yet the move brought about a seismic shift in his work.

The young artist had spent the previous decade in Leiden painting small, sparse, monochrome still lifes, mostly of books, plus the occasional globe or musical instrument, largely for a clientele from the local Protestant university.

But in Antwerp, a Counter-Reformation stronghold, de Heem was exposed to the full force of the Flemish Baroque — in particular the dramatic work of Rubens, who by then was nearly 60 and running a large, successful studio in the city.

As a result, his still lifes became more sumptuous and elaborate, full of platters and goblets overflowing with exotic fruits and flowers to emphasise the notion of abundance.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684), A Banquet Still Life, circa 1643. Oil on canvas. 61 x 83⅛ in (155 x 211 cm). Estimate £4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale on 15 December 2020 at Christie’s in London

Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684), A Banquet Still Life, circa 1643. Oil on canvas. 61 x 83⅛ in (155 x 211 cm). Estimate: £4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale on 15 December 2020 at Christie’s in London

‘He married the two great still life traditions of the northern and southern Netherlands,’ explains Clementine Sinclair, the head of Christie’s upcoming Old Master Evening Sale, in the short film above. ‘His palette becomes a lot lighter and altogether more flamboyant. But he was true to his Dutch roots in the meticulous rendering of detail.’

Within a few years, de Heem started work on a series of four large canvases that would establish him as the leading still life painter of the Golden Age. Today, they’re seen as the apex not only of his career but also of the genre as a whole.

Executed between 1640 and 1643, they exemplify what was then an emerging style of painting know as pronkstilleven, a Dutch term for ornate still lifes, many of which convey moral lessons through symbolism. The first was A Table of Desserts, now held in the Louvre, which was followed a year later by Still Life with Moor and Parrots, now housed at the Brussels City Museum.

In 1642 he completed Still Life With a Lobster, which was sold by Christie’s to a private collector in 1988 for $6.6 million. It shattered the record for the most expensive Old Master painting sold in America, set at $2.9 million just 24 hours before by another de Heem still life.

De Heem’s A Table of Desserts, 1640, in the Louvre, is remarkably similar to A Banquet Still Life. Photo © RMN Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)  Franck Raux

De Heem’s A Table of Desserts, 1640, in the Louvre, is remarkably similar to A Banquet Still Life. Photo: © RMN Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

The work now being offered at Christie’s was the fourth and final canvas in this group, A Banquet Still Life, completed in 1643. It depicts a heavily laden banquet table which, as Sinclair says, looks as if it has been ravaged then abandoned. She also notes that its meticulous composition is very similar to that of the Louvre canvas (above).

‘De Heem had a huge amount of fun crafting these compositions. The apples relate to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden’ — specialist Clementine Sinclair

In the background of the 1643 work, between a pair of columns, a curtain has been drawn back to reveal a pastoral landscape. In front, two tablecloths have been covered with pewter platters of shrimp, a crayfish, a crab and a half-eaten pie. Also prominent are a large silver-gilt columbine cup and cover, a lute and several flutes with their leather cases.

To the right, a wicker basket holds a Chinese Ming dynasty bowl filled with grapes, plums, peaches, cherries, apples and pears. To the left are a silver tazza, a sugar shaker and a splendid shell ewer set with a ruby. Many of the same details appear in the Louvre canvas.

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‘De Heem had a huge amount of fun crafting these compositions,’ says Sinclair, pointing to various metaphors in the work. ‘The apples relate to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. There are grapes and glasses of wine referring to the redemptive nature of the Eucharist. There’s a pipe, the embers of which have just been snuffed out, and that’s evocative of the fact that life can so easily be snuffed out.’

The idea of vanitas  pictures, she says, was to underline that Earthly wealth is ephemeral.

Unlike the other three pictures, A Banquet Still Life  has remained largely unknown in the same private collection for more than 200 years. It was only in 2016 that scholars first acknowledged the picture after Henry Pettifer, the head of Christie’s Old Masters department, alerted Fred Meijer to it for inclusion in his de Heem catalogue raisonné.

Two areas of the painting where cleaning has revealed the pristine colours underneath the old varnish

Two areas of the painting where cleaning has revealed the pristine colours underneath the old varnish

‘It’s wonderfully untouched and in its original state,’ says Sinclair. Ahead of its sale on 15 December, Christie’s asked a conservator to clean two small test patches of the canvas. The picture’s original luminosity is revealed by the bright red skin of the cherries, the reflective shell of a prawn and the crisp, white folds of a linen napkin. The result, she says, is ‘really quite remarkable’.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s  A Banquet Still Life will be on display at Christie’s in London from 11 December ahead of its sale on 15 December in the  Old Masters Evening Sale, part of  Classic Week