This monumental larder scene represents the apotheosis of Frans Snyders’s achievements as a still life painter. He was the leading pioneer of this particular genre of still life in seventeenth century Flanders and these images of game and bountiful produce strewn across a table and overflowing on to the floor constitute some of the most enduringly popular compositions in his oeuvre.
Similarly to Rubens, Snyders worked for both the local civic government and the royal Spanish court, and it was his depictions of game still lifes and hunting scenes, that most aristocratic pastime, that brought him the greatest renown among his contemporaries. Snyders worked with Rubens on many occasions, for instance in The Recognition of Philopoemen of circa 1609 (Madrid, Museo del Prado), for which a Rubens oil sketch survives (fig. 1; Paris, Musée du Louvre), which may have provided the compositional paradigm for many of Snyders’s later larder still lifes.
Snyders established the canonical model of his larder scene between 1614 and 1618, featuring selections of luxurious delicacies – small birds, boars, artichokes, asparagus and fruit – spread over a red tablecloth, which he then employed throughout his career. Whilst it is difficult to establish a chronology for these works, since only a few are dated, Koslow considers this picture to be a masterpiece from the 1640s (op. cit.), by which time the artist was staging more economical compositions with a greater sense of order, unified by intersecting curves and dynamic spirals. Rubensian baroque diagonals imbue the scene with monumental grandeur, viewed from a high vantage point so as to reveal a deeper and more realistic sense of three-dimensional space. The figures which featured in earlier larder scenes have now been eliminated. The greyish-green background complements Snyders’s rich and varied palette; the paint has been applied in transparent glazes, a technique he mastered in the 1610s.
A cool, bright light illuminates the contents of the table, with the variety and texture of the produce appearing in such close proximity to the viewer that it gives a strikingly tactile immediacy. Goods and game lie arbitrarily in the immediate foreground, as if they have just freshly arrived from the field and garden to supply the householder’s table. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, as wealthy merchants and the nobility acquired estates with greater vigour than before, they increasingly lavished their tables with the fresh produce of the land. The emergence of the larder still life coincides with the signing of the Twelve Years’ Truce of 1609, after which the Netherlanders could anticipate a lengthy period of peace and tranquility: the larder scenes can be seen to reflect this optimism. In the allegorical symbolism of the Seasons, Elements and Senses, fruit is associated with autumn and the earth, so Snyders’s composition extols the joys of rural life and its plenitude, with the fruit alluding both to domestic abundance and charity. The presence of poultry and hare, yielded from the estate’s farm, is fitting as it was levied as a seigneurial tax (pachtschuld) paid by a landowner’s tenant farmers (ibid., p. 108).
To Snyders’s contemporary audience, the motifs in this picture would have also held unmistakable moral connotations. For instance, the leashed hounds to the left look in different directions, symbolising man’s conflicted nature between carnal temptation and spiritual aspiration. The assemblage of game and animal trophies alludes to both lust and chaste love, such as the boar, an attribute of the virgin goddess Diana, who, as huntress, symbolises the conquest of carnal passions. Tapestries depicting hunts often showed courtly lovers displaying their affection in the midst of a hunt, with a late fifteenth-century German stag hunt tapestry announcing: ‘I am hunting for fidelity, and if I find it I will never have lived a happier time.’