Strange things in old Dutch paintings
Still life of porcelain vessels containing sweets, pewter plates bearing sweets and chestnuts, three pieces of glassware and a bread roll on a table draped with a mauve cloth, 1600-1619. Private collection
Strange things in old Dutch paintings
In the first decades of the 17th century, a selection of painters in Holland and Flanders produced a new type of painting and an entirely new genre: still lifes showing food on tables. Common and luxurious food items of that time such as bread, cheese and butter, fish, seafood, vegetables, meat and sweets on porcelain and silver plates were shown with wine and beer in different types of (gilt) glassware. These were painted with an incredible sensitivity to the expression of texture, colour and light.
Published by the Mauritshuis, the book Slow Food provides great insight into this genre and the significance of food in paintings made in the southern and northern Netherlands during 1600-1640. I’m summarising some interesting bits from this book for you here.
Paintings of food and only food had not been produced before: in the previous centuries food items had played a ‘supporting role’ in paintings that focused on figures from biblical scenes or market paintings, as can be seen in the work of Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574). The new genre was so fresh that people did not know what to call it at the time. Various terms were used as is ecident from collectors’ inventories, such as “banketjes” (banquets), “suyckerbanquet” (sugar/sweets), “oesterbanketjes” (oysters) and “ontbijtjes” (referring to paintings showing breakfast but also to light meals taken throughout the day).
Antwerp, which in the 16th century was the first city in the northern and southern Netherlands to become wealthy through trade and industry, likely produced the pioneers of the food painting genre, among whom was Osias Beert (1580-1623) and Clara Peeters (active 1607-1621). It is not surprising that the times of economic prosperity and abundance were reflected in the arts.
Disaster struck in 1585 however with the fall of Antwerp after a year-long siege of the city by the Spanish. Antwerp had been a centre of the Dutch revolt against catholic Spain during the Eighty Year’s War (Wikipedia). The fall of the city brought about an exodus of refugees from the southern Netherlands to the north with many settling in Amsterdam and close-by Haarlem. The populations of these cities then doubled over the next 40 years, contributing to the explosion of wealth and trade in that region during the 1600s. The production of food paintings then logically flourished in Haarlem, with Floris van Dijck (1575-1651), Nicolaes Gillis (active 1612-1632), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Willem Heda (1594-1680) as ‘early’ notable painters.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Antwerp-born and painting in Haarlem, Claesz is known for his harmonious ‘monochrome’ banketjes, using a limited palette.
Strange things and habits
Many of the items in these food paintings feel familiar to us. Herring and cheese are recognisable, which were likely painted to highlight or celebrate the significance of these for Dutch trade. Some argue that certain foods express a certain symbolism, for example cheese could be seen as representing decay and transiency due to preservation issues with food in this era. However, as a still life painter who loves painting all that is shown in 17th century Dutch still life, I don’t think symbolism is much of a factor: there is just such a delight and joy in painting texture, light and colour of objects, I don’t believe at all that such paintings carry a message. Some do of course, and very clearly so: see paintings featuring skulls. I think painters just had fun with glassware and oysters.
Some items were likely also painted to show their importance at meal times. For example, in 17th century Holland bread and salt were always present at the table. Imported from the Mediterranean, salt was important enough to be presented in beautiful silver or gilt cellars. Of course, the less wealthy part of the population might not have had access to salt.
What I was not aware of, is that when the 17th century Dutch fancied a glass of red wine, they used a glass made ‘à la façon de Venise’, glassware in the ‘Venetian fashion’. These glasses were made of fine and colourless glass and looked beautiful containing red wine. A different type of glassware, the roemer, was less elegant and made of green glass. Only white wine would be drunk from this as the green glass would give red wine an awful muddy colour.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The luxurious silver salt cellar indicates the importance of salt during 17th century meal times (wealthy households).
Some items in the 17th century paintings look unfamiliar. In the painting of Osias Beert at the top and in the detail shown below, white crusty sticks and strange wet-looking shapes and textures are visible. Long disappeared from our tables, these are typical 17th C Dutch sugar confections which were enjoyed at the end of a meal. At that time sugar was still a luxury item enjoyed by a select part of the population. Cane sugar was imported from Madeira, West Africa and Brazil; the sugar trade was aligned with the slave trade – sadly a part of the Dutch’ path to economic success.
Sugar was used to confit fruits and vegetables and in cakes, waffles and marzipan. The white sticks, balls and other crusty shapes are sugared seeds (such as aniseed and caraway seeds), spices (cinnamon sticks) and nuts. The Dutch were able to enjoy these due to their trade with the Far East for example. Interestingly, we still enjoy sugared aniseeds today!
Osias Beert, detail.
Sugar confections which have disappeared from our tables: confit fruits and vegetables, and sugared seeds, spices and nuts.
Sugared aniseed is still enjoyed today: we sprinkle these on crispbread wherever we celebrate the birth of a baby.
Try making these yourself
In her “Kookboek van de Gouden Eeuw” (Dutch Golden Age recipe book) Manon Henzen includes a recipe for confit orange peel. If you would like to prepare this typical 17th century sugar confection, please email me for a translation of the recipe at email@example.com. I might give it a try myself this weekend!
Slow Food, Hollandse en Vlaamse maaltijdstillevens 1600-1640 (2017). Ed. Quentin Buvelot, Mauritshuis Den Haag
The Fall of Antwerp, 1585: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Antwerp
Kookboek van de Gouden Eeuw, 2018, Manon Henzen, Het Zwarte Schaap (publ): https://eetverleden.nl/kookboek-van-de-gouden-eeuw/