A sparkling and succulent Still Life
by Pieter Claesz, which was acquired from the Cooke Fund and has recently made its appearance in the galleries, is producing a uniform reaction on the part of all observers: an overwhelming desire for lobster and a glass of hock. This is not surprising, for the artist painted his picture with the deliberate intention of glorifying the pleasures of the table. There is nothing gross about it. It is, rather, a poetic interpretation of that well-being of mind and body engendered by the contemplation of fine food temptingly presented. The architecture of the picture, the author's use of color and his absorption in texture, are an added interest to those concerned with the overall intention of the artist.Pieter Claesz was one of the earliest of the great seventeenth-century school of still life painters in Holland. One historian, recording the development of the school, says this of him: "One of the first still life painters of whose work we have examples is Pieter Claesz (1590-1661) of Haarlem of whom nothing is known." The statement is not quite accurate, for it is known that Claesz was born at Steinfurt in Westphalia and that he went to Haarlem in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. There he remained until his death in 1660 or 1661, producing the type of still life for which Haarlem is noted. As a signature he used his monogram, P C, superimposing the letters. His works are to be found, among others, in the National Museum in Antwerp, at Dresden, Munich, in the Boymans Museum, the National Gallery in London, and in numerous smaller museums and private collections. The remainder of what is known about him emerges from an examination of his paintings, which reflect his own character as a painter, the growing pride of Holland in its freedom, and the Dutch preoccupation with the glories of their country.The Institute's Still Life
is a characteristic example of Claesz's style. The first thing that captures the spectator's attention if the elegance and authority of the repast he has chosen to present. Thereafter he observes the care with which it has been depicted. The elements of the supper are laid out on a table partially covered by a cloth of white damask. The focus of the picture is the silver platter bearing a boiled lobster and a small crab. To the left the eye rises by way of a green wineglass, its stem studded with prunts, and a baroque silver coffeepot to a tall beaker of bottle-green glass. It then drops to an octagonal gold watch, open at the back to show the works, which lies at the base of the coffee pot, and passes on around the front of the table noting a silver plate bearing one whole and one half-peeled lemon and a tilted bowl of brown sauce, a knife case decked with a blue ribbon, and a knife. It finally stops at the lower right corner with a silver plate of crusty rolls.The whole thing is executed with clarity and crispness, each object retaining its individual character yet each bound to the other by the light which falls from the left. The shells of the fish have precisely the color and quality they should have. One knows they will break with a dry crack. The rolls seem to crunch as one looks at them, and the skins of the lemons have the glistening, pitted surface that is oily to the touch. The sauce is rich and thick and the wine clear and cool. The metals and fabrics, too, retain their own peculiar quality, lending the scene an elegance associated with the still life paintings produced in Haarlem.It is an interesting fact that the origin of a Dutch still life of the seventeenth century can almost invariably be guessed by the objects used to compose it. Each painting reflects not only the character of the artist, but the character of the town in which it was produced. The rich and pleasure-loving burghers of Haarlem were chiefly interested in still lifes of food accompanied by handsome plate and beautiful glass. In the dignified town of Leyden, whose university was world-famous, books, music, and writing materials constituted the favorite subject. Still lifes from Utrecht presented fruits and flowers, and those from The Hague the colorful fish of the Scheveningen fish-market. Dutch still lifes, in fact, suited subject to taste as meticulously as did every other form of Dutch portraiture. Many of the painters who depicted this particular aspect of life in Holland were late in emerging as individuals in the still life group, and their work was frequently attributed to other artists. Claesz was one of the early exponents to receive tardy recognition, and his pictures are relatively rare.His handsome Still Life,
with the monogram P C and the date 1643 on the gold watch lying at the left, is the first example of seventeenth-century Dutch still life to enter the Institute's collection. It is a brilliant work from every point of view, and one that reiterates the Dutch desire to record every phase of Dutch life, no matter how commonplace, in the period of its greatest achievement.Referenced Work of Art
- Still Life by Pieter Claesz, Dutch, 1590-1661. A brilliant example of Dutch still life painting. Acquired from the Cooke Fund.