A masterpiece from Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s early Antwerp period, this is among the largest and most ambitiously conceived still-lifes in his oeuvre. It marks a highpoint in his career, the culmination of a series of four monumental canvases that he embarked on between 1640 and 1643, which together re-defined the still-life genre and established De Heem as the pre-eminent still-life painter of the Golden Age. Unlike the other three works, which are well known, this picture has remained hidden from public view in the same private collection since the nineteenth century. It has only recently been brought to the attention of scholars and it is here offered for sale, uncleaned, for the first time in more than two centuries.
The son of an Antwerp musician, the artist was born in Utrecht as Jan Davidsz. Van Antwerpen, before adopting the name De Heem. It is not known who his teacher was, although he appears to have felt the early influence of Balthasar van der Ast in Utrecht. In 1625, he moved to Leiden where his earliest known works – a small number of fruit and vanitas still-lifes – show the influence of David Bailly and Rembrandt, who were active there at the same time, as well as new trends from Haarlem initiated by the likes of Pieter Claesz.
In around 1635, De Heem moved to his father’s native city of Antwerp, where he joined the painter’s guild in March 1636. In Antwerp, De Heem’s art underwent a transformation. The muted tones and sparse compositions employed during his Dutch phase were swiftly abandoned in favour of colour, light and exuberance, as De Heem embraced the Flemish baroque movement with open arms. A few years after his arrival, probably inspired by the large-scale kitchen still-lifes of Frans Snyders, De Heem embarked on a series of monumental canvases that combined Dutch precision with Flemish grandeur. A somewhat experimental work of circa 1639 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was followed in 1640 by the masterly Table of Deserts now in the Louvre (fig. 1); then, in 1641, by the Still Life in an Interior (fig. 2; Brussels Municipal Museum); in 1642 by the Banquet Still Life with a Lobster (fig. 3; Private collection; formerly, Christie’s, New York, 15 January 1988, lot 107, $6,600,000), and finally the present work, the last of the monumental canvases, in 1643. With these works, De Heem effectively invented the pronkstilleven (or sumptuous still-life), aggrandising the genre of still-life painting and cementing his reputation as its leading protagonist.
The subject of the present work is overtly luxurious. A heavily laden banquet table stands in a palatial setting before a terrace flanked by columns. A curtain has been drawn to reveal a landscape with a church spire in the distance. A silver-gilt wine cooler with two bottles stands on a stool in the lower left foreground. The table itself is partially covered by a white cloth which is bunched up over a green velvet cloth with a braided edge. On the banquet table are some pewter plates laden with a variety of fruit, shrimps, a crab, a red-boiled crayfish and a fruit pie. To the right of the pie is a large wicker basket holding a Wanli-kraak porcelain salver, piled with grapes, plums, peaches, cherries, apples and pears, that spill out onto the table. To the left, a silver tazza lies on its side next to a silver sugar shaker and an extraordinary silver-mounted, turbo shell ewer adorned with a large ruby set in the centre. A large silver-gilt columbine cup and cover stands in the middle of the composition with a tall, half-filled flute glass behind. In front and to the right of the basket are a lute and several flutes, as well as a leather flute case lying by a book and an open portfolio. To the right is a smouldering taper and a pipe beneath a strong box with keys in the lock.
The luxuriousness of the scene arises not just from the proliferation of these costly objects, but also from the lavish way in which they are recorded. De Heem delights in the rendition of the different forms and textures of all the elements – the smooth reflective surfaces of the metallic objects, the delicately crafted, wooden musical instruments, the open pages of a book, the soft velvet table cloth, the nubble of the lemon peel – putting on a peerless display of technical virtuosity. The sumptuous nature of the banquet is further heightened by the sheer scale. De Heem’s viewpoint is set back from the table and a remarkable sense of spatial depth achieved by the architectural setting and the view into the landscape. The whole arrangement was carefully calculated to affect an overriding sense of effortless grandeur. As Peter Sutton has put it: ‘The abundance and seemingly casual disarray of the precious objects evokes an ideal of moneyed insouciance, the pictorial equivalent of leisured wealth’ (The Age of Rubens, exhibition catalogue, Boston, 1993, p. 540, under no. 111).
To what extent De Heem intended to convey a moralising message with the picture is a matter of debate. Some of the fruits are often linked with Christian symbolism such as: cherries - the fruit of paradise; peaches and apples - forbidden fruit; grapes - a sign of redemption; and wine - a reference to the Eucharist. While it is uncertain whether the subtleties of such references were really intended by De Heem, or picked up on by his patrons, it is almost certain that a broader vanitas message would have been understood loud and clear. The sensual pleasures of food and music are ephemeral, luxury doesn’t endure - the snuffed-out ember a reminder of time’s fleetingness. As Meijer suggests: ‘The costly objects on display can be regarded as reminders of the temporary character of our life on earth: none of this wealth can be transposed to the next world’ (op. cit. p. 98).
In his PHD dissertation, Meijer considers De Heem’s four large canvases together as a group, ‘The Large Rich Still Lifes’ (ibid., pp. 90-98), discussing their evolution and analysing the geometry of the compositions. He places the present work at the end of the sequence, dating it to 1643, as the effective climax of De Heem’s explorations on this monumental format, which he never returned to again. The work is effectively a reprisal of the Louvre Table of Deserts. The set-up is broadly the same: the table is covered with the same green and white cloths, shown in an architectural setting, a raised curtain revealing a landscape in the distance. The composition is anchored by same core elements: the wine cooler, acting as a repoussoir, moved from the lower right to the lower left corner; the gilt cup and cover at the centre, with the tall flute glass behind. The key position held by the fruit bowl perched on a basket remains, as does the fruit pie, and the ornate ewer (of a different variety) to its left. The lute is moved from the lower left corner to give further weight to the central part of the composition, and books, manuscripts and the other musical instruments take the place of pewter plates, a knife and a bread roll in the Louvre picture. Behind, De Heem here introduces a burnt ember and a strong box in the place occupied by a circular map.
It is not known who originally commissioned this or the Louvre picture. The patrons must have been wealthy merchants or noblemen and the dedication of the signature in this picture ‘V.E otmeoedigen / J-D Heem’ (‘your Honour’s humble JD de Heem’) indicates that it was likely painted for a person of especially high rank and title. By 1683, the Louvre picture was in the collection of the French King Louis XIV; the Brussels picture was in the Antwerp collection of Guillelmo Potteau by 1692; and the Still Life with lobster was reputedly in the collection of King Charles I and then George III, although this has now been widely refuted.
Jan Davidsz. de Heem was highly successful in his own lifetime and became one of the most expensive artists of his generation. His influence on the whole genre of still-life painting was profound. As Sam Segal has asserted: ‘No painter had a greater influence on the development of Netherlandish still-life painting during the 17th century as Jan Davidsz. de Heem’, making clear that ‘His large sumptuous still-lifes of the 1640s made a particularly profound impression’ (‘De Heem Family’; Grove Dictionary of Art online). This impression was felt not just by his contemporaries, pupils and followers (who were numerous), but also by succeeding generations of artists at the vanguard of still-life painting. Paul Cezanne has often been cited as an admirer of De Heem. His Still life with Apples of 1893-94 (fig. 4; Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum) has, for example, been discussed in relation to the Table of Deserts in the Louvre (B. Alsdorf, ‘Interior landscapes: metaphor and meaning in Cezanne’s late still-lifes’, Word and Image, online publication, 27 October 2010, pp. 314-323). Henri Matisse was in awe of De Heem’s painting at the Louvre. He made a full size, academic copy of it in 1893, before returning to the picture in 1915 with a contemporised version, which brought Jan Davidsz. de Heem into the twentieth century with a vengeance (fig. 5; New York, Museum of Modern Art).