This is Joachim Beuckelaer's earliest signed and dated still life. The selection of food, which includes parsnips, cabbages and chestnuts, suggests winter, and this painting may have originally been conceived as one of either a pair or a series of the seasons. Almost all of Beuckelaer's paintings contain both figural and still life elements. It is his combination of them that varies and in this work the latter clearly takes precedence. Three quarters of the scene is given to a monumental still life comprised of baskets, bowls and plates precariously balanced on a table top that has been pushed to the edge of the picture plane. A flayed leg of beef appears at the center of the composition and is surrounded by rabbits, a chicken, and a duck, all in various stages of preparation. Baskets of vegetables and nuts, several rolls and a large piece of molded butter fill out the composition and indicate that these are the makings of a single elaborate meal. The kitchen maid at the left and the figures in the far room have been charged with the meal's preparation and the hurried activity in the background mirrors the dynamic grouping of the still life elements in the foreground.
Indeed, Beuckelaer's still lifes are anything but still. Each element is depicted from its most characteristic viewpoint and the whole is arranged for aesthetic rather than realistic effect. We see the leg of beef from the side as if the plate has been turned up to display its contents, while the rabbits at the right appear as they most often do in a still life context - stretched out with feet bound - even if their spatial relationship to the basket behind them is unclear. The size of the duck at the far left has been exaggerated for compositional effect and to provide an effective visual foil to the background scene.
The result is an additive composition with an abstracted and distinctly modern sense of space. Beuckelaer's skill as a still life painter is clearly displayed throughout the composition, from the texture of the duck's feathers and the plucked skin of the chicken to the highlights on the edge of the shallow wicker basket and the single glass that sits on the lower left hand corner of the table.
It is unclear at first whether the setting is intended to be indoors or out of doors as the arched threshold covered in vines clearly divides the space of the table from that of the kitchen. The kitchen maid who approaches the table from the left, however, wears no shoes, a detail that is incompatible with both the selection of winter vegetables displayed and the figures warming themselves by the fire in the background. Her flowing dress with material draped across her chest is unusual in this context as is her wielding of the spoon, which she holds like a shepherd's crook or a staff. These exotic and vaguely arcadian elements are emphasized by the decorative head carved into the keystone of the archway - its features are very like those of the kitchen maid and it is depicted on the same scale. Both the scale and the classicizing elements of Still Life reflect Beuckelaer's increasing interest in the work of history painters such as Frans Floris. His figures became progressively more monumental, elegant, and idealized throughout the 1560s and his painting technique loosened over time. He experimented with Italian oil sketch techniques in the early 1560s and by the end of the decade was using canvas in addition to panel supports.
Beuckelaer's narratives are never explicit and most often revolve around the eroticism of food and questions of morality. He is best known for large-scale market scenes in which voluptuous young women appear to proffer themselves along with their produce. In The Market Stall of 1564 (Staatliche Museum, Kassel) for example, more than three-fourths of the composition is given over to a towering display of fruit and vegetables and the young woman skinning a duck at the left flirtatiously encourages the viewer to look. In other market scenes, the young woman rather than her produce is being tested with arms wrapped around waists and hands plunged into bodices. Paintings such as these remained popular through the end of the seventeenth century and were hung specifically in kitchen and dining room settings.
Joachim Beuckelaer was born around 1534 to a little known family of Antwerp painters and studied with his uncle by marriage, Pieter Aertsen. He became a master in the Guild of St. Luke in 1560, the year in which he also got married, and his earliest works are densely populated landscapes and religious subjects such as the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, seen in bird's eye view. Beuckelaer also received commissions from the Church - one of which, as recorded by van Mander, was destroyed in the Iconoclastic riots of 1581 - and made designs for stained glass windows. His latest dated work is from 1574 and he died that year or shortly thereafter. He seems to have had a studio, as evidenced by a group of works associated with him and signed with the monogram HB but does not seem to have had any immediate followers in Antwerp. His work was popular in northern Italy, and by around 1580 Vincenzo Campi in Cremona and Bartolomeo Passarotti and Annibale Carracci in Bologna were painting large-scale market and kitchen scenes.