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Art in focus: Jan Davidszoon de Heem's 'Elaborate Tabletop Still Life With Foodstuffs, Exotic Animals and Precious Objects'

Americans think of Thanksgiving as the quintessential expression of bounty. It commemorates a gathering in 1621 held by settlers of Plymouth Colony, now Massachusetts, to celebrate their first fall harvest after a harsh year in their new world. • But if we want to see real bounty in the 17th century, we need to travel back across the Atlantic Ocean to the Netherlands where gut-busting, wallet-pummeling plenty was the stock in trade for Jan Davidszoon de Heem, a celebrated painter of still lifes that were all the rage in his part of northern Europe. The painting by de Heem shown here is in the permanent collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. • The connection between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and de Heem isn't direct but it's interesting beyond the fact that they lived during the same time. • So in advance of Thanksgiving this week, when many of us will gather together around a groaning board, let's look at two very different cultures that coexisted, each producing its own version of bounty. Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

The Netherlands in the 17th century

This period was known as the Dutch Golden Age in which science, philosophy, art and commerce flourished after the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 that gave the Netherlands a virtual monopoly on lucrative trade with Asia. It was one of the most enlightened areas for religious tolerance, and refugees of various spiritual persuasions settled there, especially in the northern provinces where the Pilgrims chose to live after emigrating from England and before their historic voyage.

The rise of a wealthy merchant class changed priorities for spendable income, especially in art. The Protestant majority was uninterested in the religious themes popular in Catholic countries in southern Europe, nor was there a market for the traditionally esteemed history paintings. It was here that the still life genre scene (little slices of everyday life) and landscape first became important categories in painting, along with portraits and paintings of civic groups. The most important painters of the time were Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jacob van Ruisdael.

The still life

Examples of floral paintings are found as far back as early Greece. In early European art, flowers and fruits were peripheral symbols, used as coded messages of piety and purity, for example, in church paintings for an illiterate public. By the 17th century, arrangements of flowers, along with fruits and vegetables, had more interest to a new, wealthy middle class as representations of material wealth. In many, though, elements were added allegorically — a skull, for example — as symbols of mortality and were known as vanitas paintings.

Jan Davidszoon de Heem

De Heem (1606-1684) was one of the great still life painters of his time. He was born in Utrecht, in the northern part of the Netherlands, and his earliest known work reflects the more sober approach to his subjects. He moved south to Flanders in 1636 where his famous florid style blossomed during a period called the Flemish Baroque. His middle name is often shortened to read "Davidsz."

The painting

Virginia Brilliant, associate curator of European art at the Ringling Museum, says its de Heem painting "is the one requested any time a museum wants to exhibit his works."

It's a tour de force of the still life category. The composition is the classic triangle around which the eye roams, but it's off-center, making it more sophisticated and interesting. The table is piled to near tipping point with platters of food and serving pieces of silver and gold. Beyond the drapery is a column, and farther away still, a glimpse of verdant landscape gently rolls by. Perched above, two parrots seem about to scuffle over a bit of fruit.

Brilliant speculates that the painting was a commission for a rich merchant, meant to document his success and the abundance to which he had access. It contains all the things being imported from the New World: exotic birds, food, shells, pepper, gold and silver. Like most still lifes, it ignores the reality of seasonal availability; melons and citrus fruits would probably not be available at the same time, nor, probably, would figs and pomegranates.

De Heem, being a great painter, did not simply produce an inventory of largesse. He was showing off, Brilliant believes, packing the work with as many textural contrasts and effects as possible.

"Paint on canvas is not expensive," she says. "He invests the canvas with value by making the picture of luxury goods as splendid as the things themselves."

The black-feathered parrot, for example, is placed against black silk. "Most painters would have put contrasting fabric there because it's easier. De Heem wanted to show he could paint black on black," she says. He also painted the fruits both sliced and whole, again, Brilliant says, to demonstrate his considerable prowess.

More than its physical perfection, she finds that the unusual, unexpected details make this de Heem work so special. Look closely at the silver ewer and you'll see the room reflected in it, showing even more extravagance. The table's richly worked cloth is pulled aside to reveal the humble materials needed to stage this feast: a basket, old bottle and pot, along with discarded cuttings from the melon, perhaps to emphasize that this bounty is no fantasy. Its title was appended years later; artists didn't give their work names as is the custom today.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony

The group of religious separatists who came to be known as the Pilgrims were English but immigrated to the Netherlands in 1607 because they were being persecuted by the crown in their native land. They lived in the Netherlands until 1620 when, concerned that their children were assimilating Dutch culture, they decided to start fresh in America. Unlike other expeditions of the time, this one was based on a desire for religious freedom rather than economic gain, though more than half of the adults who joined them on a ship named the Mayflower were known by them as Strangers, individuals who went along for trading possibilities.

They landed in an area that is now Massachusetts. Plymouth Colony eventually became a thriving settlement, occupying most of the southeastern part of today's state. It was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691 and ceased to exist as an independent entity.

The connection

The Pilgrims were utterly removed from the world of de Heem and his clients and no doubt would have disapproved of such an ostentatious display. But the unknown client who paid for this painting also was part of a vast enterprise that made possible the Pilgrims' austere flight. He would not have been an investor underwriting their trip; the Pilgrims rejected a Dutch offer in favor of one from a British business group. But the possibility for their colonization would have been much harder but for the hunger for foreign trade led by the Dutch.

The painting's provenance

The work has had its own interesting, though sketchy, journey. The first record of ownership is by a German count in the 18th century. It was sold in 1867 and perhaps traded hands privately, coming back on the market in the 1920s. At that time John Ringling had begun collecting European art. His adviser, art dealer Julius Bohler, urged him to snap up this work. It was bequeathed, along with Ringling's treasures, to the state of Florida in 1936 for the museum's permanent collection.

"John Ringling got lucky," Brilliant says. "It's probably the finest of de Heem's works and just happened to be for sale at the right time. He couldn't get a truly big-name artist like Goya, which he really wanted, but he did get this."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

Art in focus: Jan Davidszoon de Heem's 'Elaborate Tabletop Still Life With Foodstuffs, Exotic Animals and Precious Objects' 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 3:30am]
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