Food Feature | November 2020
Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Goblet, 1631
By Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art
Pictures of fruit, flowers, and other common objects decorated countless homes during the seventeenth century. Such still lifes were especially fashionable in the Netherlands, fueled by the insatiable appetite of the middle and upper classes for the arts. One of the best-known painters in this genre is the Dutch artist Willem Claesz Heda. Heda specialized in banketje, or breakfast scenes, which were popular in his native city of Haarlem. In 1631, when Heda was already well established, he painted this highly detailed table scene. A roemer–a massive goblet studded with prunts (raised beads of glass)–is carefully arranged alongside an embossed silver cup and two plates. The fish (perhaps an Atlantic cod), roll of bread, lemon, and nuts were typical breakfast foods for the Dutch middle-class at the time. While the goblet is still full of white wine and the fluffy bread is intact, small crumbles of nutshell as well as the swirling lemon peel reveal traces left by a recent visitor.
It is difficult to know whether Heda planned this still life as the evocative scene of an interrupted meal or as an admonitory lesson in moderation. He conspicuously placed a watch in the foreground with its blue ribbon looping on and off the table. Perhaps the object is supposed to remind us of the passage of time and, more concretely, the decay of earthly delights. Likewise, it is possible that the position of the silver cup, here lying on its side as if it was just accidentally knocked over, illustrates a warning against uncontrolled behavior. The plate in the center teeters on the edge of the table and may remind us of the importance of being mindful and circumspect. Such devices were so commonplace at the time—see the similarities between Heda’s painting and a still life by one of his contemporaries, Nicolaes van Verendael, in the detail images above—that they may have already lost the moral urgency they were meant to convey. Heda’s technical mastery takes precedence over the subject matter in this painting. While it consists of only a handful of objects, they are arranged harmoniously on the small table. There is a balance in the fan shaped composition, culminating in the roemer. The diagonal placement of the knife and silver cup creates spatial depth, while the low viewpoint renders the breakfast immediate, as if we just need to stretch out our hands to partake. Here, order is carefully concealed, while spontaneity is effectively evoked. Heda also limited his palette to unified tones of grays and browns, all applied with soft brushstrokes that contribute to the illusion of spatial depth. With subtle modulations such as the highlights on the silver cup, the crisp reflections on the goblet, and the thick texture of the lemon peel, Heda delivers an atmosphere that is at the same time quiet and introspective, yet festive—all characteristic traits of Dutch life during the seventeenth century.