Painted by the rare and enigmatic artist David Rijckaert II, this hitherto unpublished work exemplifies the most highly regarded traits of the first generation of Flemish still life painters, with its incisive detailing of objects and illusorily subtle composition. The scarcity of the artist’s work can be attributed to historical confusion with his artistic identity, his name belonging to three men successively in an extended family of painters, all registered in the De Liggeren of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. It was only after 1995, when a large decorative still life of shells, glassware and ceramics, signed and dated ‘DAVIDT.RYCKAERTS. / .1616.’, was sold in these Rooms that much was gleaned of his artistic identity (8 December 1995, lot 38A). Dr. Fred Meijer deemed the painting far too early to be by the hand of David Rijckaert III, a landscape and genre painter born in 1612 (with whose work the present artist has been confused), and not the work of the patriarch David Rijckaert I, a decorator of woodwork and sculptures, concluding that it was naturally a picture by David Rijckaert II (F.G. Meijer, ‘Herkend: Een stilleven van David Rijckaert II’, Magazine Rijksmuseum Twenthe, 2009, no. 1, pp. 26-28), from which an oeuvre could thus be reasonably established.
The chromatic palette, sharply illuminated foreground and meticulous, verisimilar treatment of everyday objects in this picture follows a tradition established by Osias Beert I (c. 1580-late 1624), Georg Flegel (1566-1638) and Clara Peeters (?1589-1657), who shaped the vocabulary of early still life painters, developing the genre that flourished in Antwerp, Haarlem and Frankfurt am Main at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Small cabinet pictures such as this were intended for intimate study by discerning viewers familiar with their symbolism, and would have hung among collections of artefacts and naturalia, alongside other paintings, scientific instruments, ornate objects and classical antiques.
Compositions such as this, classified as ontbijtjes, or ‘breakfast still lifes’, were both displays of gastronomic luxury and symbols of religious ideas. In the seventeenth-century culinary culture of the Dutch aristocracy and patrician middle classes, banquets consisted of up to nine courses and always concluded with dessert. Sugar confectionery came to prominence at the turn of the seventeenth century, after previously only being used for pharmaceutical purposes, and marked a dramatic transformation in taste, quickly replacing honey as a sweetener. The religious undertones here are emphasised by the sweets that overlap as a cross in the left foreground, with the water and wine allusive to Christ’s first miracle at the Marriage at Cana, together with the wine and bread as Eucharistic symbols of his blood and body.
As a display of luxury, Rijckaert renders with great meticulousness two drinking vessels, a Berkemeier glass and one conically shaped in a gold bekerschroef, or glass-holder, used to turn a simple glass into an elegant vessel by providing an intricately designed stem and base. Judging from their representation in art, they were common devices in late sixteenth and early-seventeenth century painting and denoted high social standing. The detail of Rijckaert’s rendering of the stoneware ewer further provides a wealth of visual information that identifies it as a ‘Schnabelkanne’, produced in the ceramics tradition of Siegburg, Germany, most probably by the potter Christian Knütgen, a member of the influential potter dynasty, between 1550 and 1600. The stylistic and decorative motifs can be closely matched to comparable objects by the maker in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 1; inv. no. 11.93.3) and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. 8457-1863), which are distinctive in their applied moulded reliefs and incised ‘kerbschnitt’ chip-carved geometric decoration. The ornate, curvilinear designs typically had allegorical or religious significance and could depict entire narratives, usually made after prints of the nominal ‘Little Masters’ of the German school, such as Virgil Solis, Bartel Beham, and Theodore de Bry. The industry of German stoneware played an important part in the material culture of early modern Low Countries, catering to the life of Netherlandish middle classes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred Meijer of the RKD, The Hague, for proposing the attribution on the basis of photographs.