The Haarlemmer Roelof Koets was one of the pioneers of Dutch still life and this wonderful panel of 1626 is his second earliest dated painting. As such, it constitutes a key work both in the artist’s oeuvre and in the early development of still life in Haarlem.
It was in this thriving town that still life painting first began to flower on a structural scale and formidable level in The Netherlands. The genre appears to have developed from kitchen scenes, the first recorded Haarlem still life by the history painter Cornelis van Haarlem being a kitchen still life of 1596 (Linz, private collection). Still lifes of laid tables, such as the present, appear later, the earliest being of 1610, by the leading practitioner of this type, Floris van Dyck, who had worked in Rome alongside Caravaggio in Cavaliere d’Arpino’s studio. The majority of Van Dyck’s rare laid tables typically feature a pile of cheeses. In this work and his earliest dated and more elaborate laid table of 1625 in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, Koets elaborates on these paradigmatic works by Van Dyck.
Just like Van Dyck, Koets arranged the items in his “banquetje”, as contemporaries of Koets called these paintings, symmetrically with the two cheeses sitting on top of each other as the main motif in the centre. Two costly Chinese Wanli bowls with grapes and apples respectively stand on either side. Koets enriched the composition with white bread, hazelnuts, walnuts and some pears. Furthermore, a small pewter plate carrying a cut apple and silver knife lean on the edge of the table, playful details that create an illusion of depth. The table is covered with the fine linen damask cloth for which Haarlem had meanwhile become the most important centre of production in the Dutch Republic. A flute glass, half-filled with red wine, inconspicuously stands in the background.
The still life displays wealth. High quality linens were among the costliest possessions of a household. Wine and the types of bread depicted – so-called “wittebrood” - were consumed only by the well-to-do, while the flute glass and Wanli bowls are costly items as well. However, Koets presents all of this against a dark and ill-defined background, lit by a tender, dim light and in an attuned palette. The still life indeed evokes an atmosphere of refined modesty rather than abundance.
Koets in particular invites the viewer to scrutinize the broad array of different materials that he captured so masterfully. His skill is especially manifest in the compellingly realistic portrayal of the cheeses. Koets painted this important work in a remarkably free manner: individual brushstrokes can be admired throughout, creating an effect of liveliness. Painted with fervour are also the grapes and vine leaves which were to become the artist’s highly individual trademark and it was this appealing motif that he would contribute to the several works he later painted together with Pieter Claesz.