Jan Davidsz. de Heem, the greatest still life painter of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands if not in Europe, was trained in his native Utrecht. Having worked in Leyden, he settled in the Habsburg controlled southern Netherlands, being enrolled in the Antwerp guild of St. Luke between September 1635 and September 1636. By then he was already an accomplished still life painter of some thirty years of age.
The Antwerp tradition of still life painting, sustained by the followers of Jan Brueghel the Elder and enriched by Frans Snyders, must have been congenial to de Heem, who never wholly accomodated his vision to the monochrome style developed in the 1630s by Pieter Claesz. and Willem Claesz. Heda in Haarlem. In Antwerp, de Heem's love of rich colour effects, precious objects delicately portrayed and fruits of the earth in abundance found expression in a baroque style, first fully expressed in the Louvre picture of 1640.
The present pronk still life of 1649 shows de Heem at the height of his powers; Sam Segal pithily describes it as 'a magnificent work'. It is uncertain whether de Heem executed it in Antwerp or in his native Utrecht. De Heem did execute some works in Utrecht (see Segal (op. cit., p. 141) where he was to return again between 1669 and 1672).
Central to the present work is the broken-open mince-meat pie, found commonly enough in Haarlem School still lifes. This is placed in front of a casket on which rests an upturned silver tazza; beside it, in the centre is a roemer; to its left is a finely wrought silver-gilt cup and cover, which stands behind a basket, from which spill grapes, peaches and plums.
As pointed out by Segal, op. cit., p. 152, and p. 218, footnote 37, the silver-gilt cup and cover is similar to one made by Friedrich Hirschvogel in Nuremberg in about 1638. Dr. ter Molen of the Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen (private communication) has kindly pointed out that tazze of this design ceased being produced after 1630. He does not know of a similar object to the prominent and magnificent silver vase-shaped ewer on the right, placed behind the Wanli kraak porselein blue and white bowl. A silver beer jug at Rosenborg Castle, near Copenhagen, made in Amsterdam in 1650, has a similar head and lid, but is of a different shape. The ewer in the present lot could of course be an invention of de Heem's; it can be thus described: a silver repoussé and chased vase-shaped ewer, with swan-head spout surmounted by a seated putto, the neck repoussé and chased with a grotesque mask, the scroll handle with applied motif of Hercules and the Nemean Lion. The head of Hercules is turned - portrait-like - towards the spectator.
Notable are the reflections: of the reverse of a painting on an easel in the central boss of the silver-gilt cup and of elements of the still life in the vacant cartouche of the silver ewer. Beyond can be made out a candlestick and books on a table and - tantalisingly imprecise - perhaps the artist himself seated facing right before an easel, holding a palette knife; fruit are also reflected in the flute, and the window of, and view from, the artist's studio can be made out reflected in the roemer.
Beneath the grapes in the foreground can be made out the reserves left for them by the artist; above the pie is perhaps a pentimento.