Dewdrops and Decay

Willem Claeszoon Heda was one of the first Dutch artists who focused his body of work entirely on still life, though luscious fruit and flowers were not part of his repertoire. Instead, there is an eerie sense of dishevelment in his paintings, as the tablecloths and napkins seem to be thrown carelessly together, the food is half-eaten, and the silverware lies upturned. From a modern perspective, our first reaction is to wonder why the scene was left in this chaotic state and to search for a contextual meaning. Looking at the objects themselves, however, suggests that they were meant to represent an artificial and metaphorical vision of reality, prompting an intellectual and moral interpretation of the upheaval and decay. At the same time, the shiny surfaces of the silverware, folds of cloth, and cups of water allowed Heda to show off his skill in rendering light and reflections.

This sense of decay could also be hidden in a luscious arrangement. An opened oyster, unraveled lemon peel, and slightly tipped plate in Pieter de Ring’s Still Life with a Golden Goblet are surrounded by the saturated hues of moist grapes and a red lobster. It is almost impossible to spot any imperfection in Coenraat Roepel’s Still Life with Fruit , until one notices that the leaves of the gleaming peaches are punctured by tiny holes and moths float against a dark background.

The upper-middle class public who commissioned these works would have considered these still lifes as concentrated representations of the luxury they strived for and dreamed about. Ambrosius Bosschaert’s Still Life with Fruit and Flowers depicts peaches and grapes, which were hard to come by in the northern climate, as well as an imported Chinese porcelain vase with expensive roses and tulips. As if to remind the viewer that this kind of extravagance was not only unattainable but also transient, insects conspicuously mingle throughout the scene.

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Truike Verdegaal