A Messy Table, a Map of the World

A Messy Table, a Map of the World

It was a grand time, but the party’s over.

The guests are gone. The servants will clean up later. In this silent room, all that remains are the leftovers, and some luxurious tableware.

When you visit a museum’s collection of European painting, do you skip by the still lifes and head for the showier stuff?

It’s understandable. Their scale is usually smaller than that of other paintings. Their prices are lower. They can feel straightforward: Pictures of fruit and fowl, cups and bottles, what do you want from me?

Still life had a bum reputation for centuries. Early critics rated them as something less than high art. And when royal academies of painting arose in the late 17th century, picture genres were explicitly ranked.

Mythological and biblical scenes were the most prestigious.

And on down to still life: dead last.

Well into the 19th century, picturing foodstuffs and household items was estimated to take a little skill but not much of a brain. Still today, painting a bowl of fruit or a bouquet of flowers is an intro lesson of art class.

But I’m fascinated by still life. By its silences. By this one in particular, painted in 1635 by the specialist Willem Claesz Heda.

These days it has the title “Still Life With a Gilt Cup,” and you’ll find it in the grand central gallery of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Heda was one of the most gifted still life painters in the young Dutch Republic. It was a new country, which birthed a new art: one of intimate realism, whose exactitude went hand in hand with a sort of lived-in serenity.

What draws me to still life, and Dutch still life in particular? I think it has to do with the paradox of their details.

The artists paint objects with the most lavish detail. They bring all their concentration to a little corner of the world. All to show you … what? That a ham once sat on a platter?

On the contrary. Still life is one of the most philosophical of painterly modes. It asks: Can something be real and an illusion at the same time? What gives things value beyond their immediate use?

Is this world we live in really anything beyond a bunch of random stuff?

The answers, as Heda knew, are not to be found only among the crumbs and the shells. You have to look past the dining room table, and way past the Netherlands, too.

But let’s start at the table. For such a rich still life, this one does not have lashings of food. The main course is oysters, fresh from the North Sea.

Half a dozen remain to be eaten. In Golden Age Haarlem, this was probably breakfast.

Behind the oyster plate is a cruet, which probably would have held vinegar for seasoning the oysters. Heda suggests, with its delicate white ribs, that it’s made of Venetian glass.

Beside the vinegar cruet is a salt cellar — a fancy one. Made of silver, festooned with ornament, the receptacle is overflowing with salt grains.

There are also little peppercorns, rolled in an almanac page and spilling out onto the plate. In the 1630s, this was quite the extravagance. The Dutch today still express sticker shock with the word “peperduur” — as expensive as pepper.

There’s a glass half full with what is almost certainly beer.

Or you can wash the oysters down with the white wine in this green goblet. It’s a Dutch ornamental glass known as a roemer, whose knobbed stem helped you keep your grip after a few drinks.

Look at the reflections here, and at Heda’s extraordinary ability to intimate a window we don’t see. The illuminated panes in the liquid. The streaky light in the glass.

Heda was a master of reflections. The same cruciform mullion and transom reappear in the neck of this pewter jug.

So does the titular gilt cup, dulled and distorted in the pewter’s surface.

And just look at how he distinguishes the matte surface of the pewter from the glinting silver tazza that lies on its side. Metal gleaming and metal lusterless.

For a still life painter, this mastery of relative surfaces was a mark of high distinction. You see it, too, in the contrast of the metal with the bunched-up damask napkin, the play of light and dark on its folds.

Even the woven seam has been picked out, by the artist’s signature.

The half-peeled lemon, too, was a boast. Peeled lemons are one of the most common motifs in Dutch still life: a prime test of an artist’s facility with line, texture and relative opacity.

But what, past painterly braggadocio, are all these items doing here? There could be a hint in the torn roll, whose crumbs collect on another pewter plate next to the upturned tazza.

The pleasures of the table do seem to have been interrupted mid-meal. By death? By a sudden rush of Protestant restraint?

Oysters, then as now, were a symbol of desire and temptation; the bread, almost untouched and at center stage, seems like a pretty straight evocation of the Eucharist.

The upturned glass, a reminder of our short and fragile life? The almanac page, a metonym of our numbered days?

Well, Heda was indeed a Protestant, but these cultural allusions only get you so far. There’s a density to this lavish spread that cuts against a religious interpretation.

In Flanders, Spain, Italy, paintings like this were more likely to appear as a window onto another world.

Not in Holland. Here, it’s almost as if the objects are being shoved out of the flat space into our world — a sensation compounded by the blank beige background.

Note the position of the plate on which the roll rests. Heda has placed it on the table’s edge, almost daring it to fall.

Do you see how the tipping plate emphasizes the shallow, cramped space of the table?

This bender of a breakfast is not, or not only, a symbolic lesson. It’s a slice of life.

The ancient Mediterranean had a rich tradition of still life. Aristocrats’ chambers of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Boscoreale were festooned with pictures of bounty.

You’d find them above all in the guest rooms, where fruit and flowers symbolized their patrons’ hospitality.

In Greece and Rome, a talent for depicting lifeless objects with verisimilitude was just about the highest calling of a painter.

Maybe you remember this story from antiquity: a painting competition in classical Athens? The artist Zeuxis depicts a bunch of grapes so skillfully that birds dive bomb into the gallery to eat them.

But his rival Parhassius has painted a curtain. Zeuxis looks at the canvas, demands the curtain be pulled back — and, realizing his mistake, has to admit he’s lost.

A great artist makes us think objects are really there.

But Christian Europe pushed objects aside, and it took some time for them to return to the center of attention. Even in the Low Countries, whose artists reached stunning heights of naturalistic depiction in the 15th century …

… the objects were more of a supplement. Fruit, plates and the like were painterly by-work, usually taken care of by lesser and younger hands in a master’s studio.

Often, the objects’ role was as symbolic supplement. As Netherlandish painting became finer and finer, thanks to the new medium of oil paint, the Holy Family and the saints came to be defined not only by their appearances …

… but also by their things.

In this Annunciation, made two centuries before our still life in the workshop of Robert Campin, the Virgin Mary is associated with a bouquet of lilies.

Also with an unblemished towel, fringed, striped, hanging from a rack on the wall.

Both symbols of Mary’s purity, you might say. And you’d be right.

But: What does it mean to render a towel with as much care as the face of the Virgin?

Foods and flowers, objects and animals: These signified ideas or themes beyond their immediate appearance. But they were not just religious symbols.

They had, in the hands of the most ambitious artists, a humanistic side, too. There was something about the very act of perceiving objects that indicated a new approach to knowledge.

By the mid-16th century, particularly in Flanders, a reversal in attention was underway.

A painter might demote Jesus and the pilgrims to the background.

And the attention once lavished on the Son of God could be applied to cucumbers and cauliflower.

Toward the century’s end, the Protestant provinces of the Spanish Netherlands united as a new Dutch Republic. It had a guarantee of religious freedom, though up here you could count out church commissions.

But who needed the church’s money? This place was rich.

So rich. Holland was quickly becoming the richest place in Europe, its economy turbocharged by trade and commerce and science.

Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden: These were the 17th-century versions of today’s Shanghai or Seoul, rapidly booming agglomerations where fortunes could be summoned from air.

And in the absence of church patronage and wealthy aristocrats, merchants and even middle-class collectors became the motors of Dutch art. They wanted different kinds of pictures, and the artists met the demand.

Here in Holland we witness the birth of a commercial art market, and narrowly specialized businessmen-painters who worked on spec for a picture-hungry populace.

There were specialists in floral painting, notably women, when a tulip could cost you a year’s salary.

Specialists in local landscapes.

In group depictions of guilds and merchants.

In portraits and allegories.

And in still lifes. At the start of the 17th century, they were simpler and more colorful. Fruit and nuts appear in abundance.

Cheeses take center stage.

The painter’s by-work — the towel and the lilies in the corner of that Madonna — now forms its own genre, with its own rules and its own prestige.

And by the 1630s, specifically in Haarlem, a particular kind of larger and more ambitious still life had taken hold. The light was flat. The colors were muted: gray and beige, white and brown.

The individual objects, by contrast, were lavish. In these pared-back settings, the luxuries took on an extra sheen — and were grouped together quite deliberately.

Heda, and his Haarlem rival Pieter Claesz, became the undisputed masters of this kind of still life, with its dull harmony of muted colors and its profusion of luxurious things.

(Though Heda didn’t call them “still lifes.” In the 1630s these were known as “banketjes,” or “banquet pieces.” The Dutch “stilleven,” from which we get the English “still life,” comes a few decades later.)

Did you wonder, for example, why the silver tazza has tumbled over? It gives the picture a just-walked-in quality. It lets us examine the ornamentation on the bottom of the cup.

But look at how it draws your eye along a diagonal.

The tipped goblet could be a ski lift, for how directly it carries us from the bread roll …

… to the gold and pewter vessels.

Or observe the calculated arrangement of the oyster shells, face down and face up, among the pewter plates.

In this shallow room, with this bleached coloring, the only way for a still life to have meaning is for these objects all to work together.

The same objects recur in Heda’s banquets, carefully rearranged each time. But if the aim of these pictures was to moralize through symbolism — be a good Protestant, remember you must die! — then the arrangement wouldn’t really matter.

Instead of asking “What do these things signify?” Heda’s arrangements are posing a different question: “How did these things get here?” Which seems easier — but ends up being more profound.

Each glass and plate here, Roland Barthes wrote, is “never alone, and never privileged; it is merely there, among many others, painted between one function and another.”

Still life’s value arose less from any one-to-one relationship between an object and a symbolic sense. The table is both a metaphorical and a literal junction point.

Take these lemons, for example.

They appear in so many of Heda’s paintings.

Lemons, to speak only visually, served as valuable complements to silver and pewter. They brought a jarring bit of bright yellow to an otherwise muted room.

Just marvel at the variety of shapes and textures in this one. He contrasts the clean slice on the right, with its gently picked out white filaments, from the pithier area at top. He even gets the shadow in the central column.

He peels the lemon, then lets the peel dangle. The white pith, so cunningly outlined, corkscrews down the table like a Slinky, while the nubbed yellow rind jumps out against the green tablecloth. (No other great artist leaves me craving a martini.)

The spiraling lemon peel was Heda’s absolute favorite swagger move.

By letting the peel dangle, the art historian Svetlana Alpers once observed, he turned the lemon into something both solid and open — just like the glasses and tankards.

Each lemon was a spectacle, each peel its own little still life.

A comestible remade as a feast for the eye.

This is a bit of a puzzle, because there are not many lemon trees in Haarlem — or anywhere in the Low Countries, with their slight sun and bitter winters.

Where could you get a lemon in the Netherlands? There were botanical gardens. By Heda’s day, the wealthy did grow citrus fruits in their orangeries. (The House of Orange needed them!)

But they were still a relative luxury, a Mediterranean fashion. Conjoined to the glass and the gold, arranged in this deliberate diagonal, the bright yellow lemon appears like a foreign exclamation mark.

Like a burst of light from the south.

You thought this picture was still? This table might as well be a transit hub, for how many global routes intersect here.

These aren’t one-to-one symbols. These aren’t just gathered objects. These are commodities: vectors from four corners that have crashed onto the shore of the breakfast table.

Still life reached these artistic heights along with the rise of mercantile capitalism. The northern Netherlands, more than anywhere else in Europe, was engaged in an oceanic trade of jewels and metals, silks and spices.

Art historians like Julie Hochstrasser and Claudia Swan shift our eyes from the dining room to a place like this: the Beurs, Amsterdam’s central commodity exchange.

You could buy pepper here, but not only that. You could also speculate on pepper futures — and, more notoriously, futures in tulips. Luxuries were also securities.

Truth is, the Protestant ethic went together with quite a bit of conspicuous consumption.

The Dutch Republic’s traders and sailors had money. Their fashion choices could be demure. But in the curiosity shops of Amsterdam or Leiden they could buy all manner of fancy things.

This one specialized in seashells, brought back from far shores.

Also taxidermied animals.

These global delights came to the Netherlands thanks largely to the Dutch East India Company. The V.O.C. — to use its Dutch acronym — was the first ever publicly traded international conglomerate, whose stocks you could buy at the Beurs.

But it was more than just a for-profit company (the most valuable company of all time, in fact).

It was a war machine, a quasi-state. With its 5,000 ships the Netherlands would surpass Portugal and Spain to become the undisputed boss of global trade.

For most of the Dutch Golden Age, the V.O.C. enjoyed a monopoly on trade with Asia.

Its outposts in Bengal became storehouses of salt and pepper …

… and manufacturers of silks and muslins.

There was an even larger Asian headquarters in Batavia — now Jakarta — from which nutmeg, cinnamon, and even cash crops like tobacco flowed back to Europe.

Nominally, this was a commercial enterprise. But in practice, the V.O.C.’s coastal fortresses were power centers, staffed with mercenaries, who had the right to wage war.

That was even more the case with the V.O.C.’s Atlantic counterpart, the West India Company, which set up colonies in Brazil, Suriname, Curaçao. Slavery, though denounced from the Calvinist pulpit in the early 17th century, would before long become a Dutch institution, too.

The plantations of Dutch Brazil, worked by enslaved Africans, produced hardwoods and sugar — and also lemons, their blossoms harnessed for perfume, their peels candied and shipped back to Amsterdam.

There were also luxuries obtained from a Dutch colony further north:

New Netherland, along the Hudson River, where the West India Company traded in furs.

On the southern tip of an island the Lenape people called Manaháhtaan, they set up a fort to protect the commodities coming down the Hudson, and prepare them to cross the ocean.

From these far corners, through diplomacy or by force, circulated into Dutch life all manner of rare and precious things.

Gold and cinnamon. Porcelain and pineapples.

Some were cultivated. Some were plundered.

All of them flowed along epic sea routes, part of a new world system that turned still life into a kind of mapmaking.

What brings order to Heda’s untidy table is precisely the taste for foreign, finer things. It was a source of pride to enjoy the exotic, and a mark of Dutchness to have global reach.

The glass was Venetian. The wine in it was French or Rhenish, although, not infrequently, Dutch burghers mixed in cloves or ginger brought from the Spice Islands.

The silver might be from Germany or Spain, or perhaps even from Spanish America. Even the bread is half-imported, made with wheat from the Baltics.

And as for the pepper in the almanac page, whose grains Heda picked out at pixel scale, it got to this table as the last stop of an oceanic movement.

Pepper was the V.O.C.’s top Asian import.

The company moved 4 million pounds a year from Java and elsewhere in the Indies, half of Europe’s entire haul.

Walking into one Amsterdam storehouse in 1639, a German tourist observed: “I thought Ceylon had sent thither all its cinnamon, the Mollucas all their cloves, the Islands of Sumatra and Java all their spices.”

“It is as if all other provinces of the world were emptied of their wealth, to make Amsterdam a public treasury.”

And so Dutch painting, so redolent of one little corner of Europe, ends up being a much more worldly thing than it first appears.

In this globalized republic, you could wear silks instead of wool, eat off porcelain instead of pewter.

You could make a young girl laugh …

… while wearing a hat made of beaver pelt, straight from the New World.

At whatever cost to people and ecosystems you might never see yourself.

So much stillness, and yet these images were always setting sail.

The rooms filled with cool, spare light were also flooded with astonishments.

Carpets and incense. Musk and indigo. Porcelain and pearls.

And this is the power of still life. It’s here, more than any other mode of art, that this social and economic life of things becomes visible.

Inside and between these carefully observed objects is a narrative of global scale. It’s a tale Heda tells even despite himself.

Just look at one last thing. Between the two napkins, underneath the upturned goblet, Heda has given us a knife.

Its handle — though I can’t be sure — looks to be ebony: the most precious of woods, borne back from Batavia on a three-masted East Indiaman. It may even be inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Yet beneath that napkin is a blade, tucked just out of sight. An exotic luxury that is also a weapon, half exposed, pointing out to us.

The littlest things have a life of their own. And the world that produced them, all its beauty and violence, can be discovered in a place as familiar as your breakfast table.

Art may show you the connections for just a moment. They will always be hazy. But some motions can only be sensed when you’re standing still.

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