In this large―more than four feet across―and magnificent banquet piece, Pieter Claesz (1596/97–1660) demonstrates why he was one of the most important still-life painters in Haarlem. A sumptuous feast is set with some of the most extravagant foods available in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A large peacock pie is festooned with the fowl’s own feathers and gullet—a true delicacy marking only the most special occasions—plus a pink rose placed in its beak. An array of foods surrounds the garnished game, including a cooked bird, olives, lemons, breads, peaches, nuts, and candies. Many of these foods, which Claesz rendered beautifully in pewter platters and Wan-li bowls, were delicacies imported from foreign lands. A small mound of salt, which was itself a precious spice, in a gilded saltcellar adds even more flavor to the meal. Perched at the ready is a berkemeier filled with glistening white wine poured from a pewter pitcher.
Painted in 1627, the size of this spectacular banquet feast is critical to its impact. Using life-size pictorial elements, the table top becomes extension of the viewer’s space. Claesz subtly enhances the effect with evidence of human presence―food partially eaten, a napkin crumpled―and precisely captured textures: the pebbly lemon peel cascading from the plate, the shining pewter pitcher, the tablecloth’s crisp folds. He harmonized and animated the scene with subtle shadows and delicate touches of light, as in the light passing through the glass of wine and reflecting on the cloth. This banquet scene was purchased through the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.
In this large banquet piece, Pieter Claesz, the most important still-life painter in Haarlem during the 1620s, envisioned a sumptuous feast consisting of the most extravagant foods available in the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century.
I would like to thank Peter Rose, a specialist in seventeenth-century Dutch foods, and Henriette Rahusen, Research Assistant in the Department of Northern Baroque Painting, for their assistance in preparing this entry.
The term “banquet piece” (“een banquetje”) associated with such paintings refers to the wide array of food stuffs and elegant presentation of the meal depicted on a laid table. Claesz has here depicted a gastronomical feast that celebrates the prosperity and global reach of the Dutch Republic, but he has not portrayed a specific meal or even a combination of foods that would have been found at one time on a Dutch table. With great artistic sensitivity, Claesz chose which items to include in his banquet scene, and carefully arranged them across the tabletop. He placed most of the smaller pictorial elements on a carefully ironed white linen tablecloth and counterbalanced them at the right with the imposing peacock pie and the large Wan-Li bowl, filled with apples and peaches. The colors and textures of the foods help guide the viewer’s progress through the composition, with bright yellows and reds situated primarily in the foreground, and more muted tonalities in the background. The experience is somewhat akin to standing before a buffet, where the meal’s sensory appeal is enhanced by careful presentation of the foods and drinks, each distinct from the other, whether it be a peacock pie, cooked pheasant, fresh apples and peaches, cut lemon, or candies.
Peter Rose, in correspondence (January 27, 2014) with Molly Harrington (University of Maryland Museum Fellow in the Department of Northern Baroque Painting),identified the fruits and candies on the pewter plate as being “dates, dried apricots, candied almonds, candied cinnamon sticks (in Dutch called Kapittelstokken for the stick that is inserted in the Bible to mark where one stopped reading) and molded red and white letter cookies.” The letters may spell v, c and l or i. Peter Rose notes that the white letters are not spiced whereas the red letters are spiced with rode bolus, a brown red coloring agent obtained from “Armenian stone.” She writes: “I was given an 18th century cookbook with a letter recipe in it, which called for “robolis” which is a contraction of “rode bolus.”
The aristocratic character of the Gallery’s painting is particularly evident because of the peacock pie and the cooked pheasant. In the Netherlands game birds only could be hunted by the landed gentry, and, hence such delicacies would only appear on the table of someone who owned, or leased, sufficient land for this activity.
Scott A. Sullivan, The Dutch Gamepiece (Montclair, NJ, 1984), 41–42; and Scott A. Sullivan “Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern,” Art Bulletin 62 (1980): 236–243.
For other of Pieter Claesz’s paintings depicting pies decorated with a bird’s neck and feathers, see: Pieter Biesboer, et al. Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life (Zwolle, 2004), nos. 12, 13, 44.
Within its decorated crust, a game pie contained a stew made of richly seasoned meat taken from a deboned bird. After cooking the pie, the chef would mount the bird’s wings, tail, and head and neck onto the crust, with the neck held upright by a wooden or wire frame.
The neck and head would be dried in the oven before being mounted on the pie.
The large scale of this imposing banquet piece, which Claesz painted in 1627, indicates that it was a commissioned piece, presumably intended for a dining room in a stately home in Haarlem. That same year Claesz painted another, almost identically-sized, banquet scene that is compositionally similar but displays an array of different objects and foods, including a turkey pie instead of a peacock pie
The two paintings were examined side-by-side in the conservation laboratory of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in 2009. Unfortunately, questions of chronological sequence could not be answered on that occasion. Correspondence from Anna Tummers, curator at the Frans Hals Museum, to Jim Mullen, February 6, 2009.
Whatever the circumstances for painting two such similar works, it seems probable that Claesz transferred the design, at least at the broadest compositional level, from one panel to the other. An examination of the edges of the Gallery’s panel reveals a number of cuts and notches, particularly along the vertical edges, hinting at a possible transfer system.
There are fifteen notches along the right edge and eight notches along the left edge. Some of these have been filled and inpainted. Only one notch is found on the top edge of the Gallery’s panel, and none on its bottom edge. This information is contained in an email Joanna Dunn sent to the author on October 10, 2014 (curatorial records).
These pairs are located at 23.5cm, 34.6 cm, and 56.1 cm from the bottom. This information is contained in an email Joanna Dunn sent to the author on October 10, 2014 (curatorial records).
Claesz did not invent the banquet piece, for his predecessors in Antwerp, among them
A somewhat undefined diagonal between the pewter pitcher and the rose in the muted background may be a suggestion of light falling onto the scene from the upper left. A similar effect is also found in the Rijksmuseum painting, but in that instance a clearer distinction exists between the dark area to the left of the diagonal and the lighter wall to its right.
Claesz’s most important innovations were the ways by which he strove to connect his still lifes with the viewer. For example, the life-size pictorial elements in Still Life with Peacock Pie make the painting seem to be an extension of the viewer’s space, an effect made even more pronounced by the tipped-over glass, partially eaten flat biscuits (known as tweeback),
Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven and London, 2007), 2, 65. Although these biscuits were a common form of daily bread, Hochstrasser emphasizes that the grain for making bread was imported from the Baltic.
Claesz proudly signed and dated this painting on the blade of the ivory-handled knife resting in the middle of the composition.
The device of including a diagonally placed knife in a tabletop still life has a long history in Netherlandish painting. See, for example, the still life in Joos van Cleve and a collaborator, Madonna and Child, c. 1525, oil on panel, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982.60.47.
Knives were often carried around in cases attached to an individual’s belt. The presence of the knife case in this painting indicates that an individual has removed the knife case from his/her belt prior to the meal. For images of people wearing knife cases in the mid-1620s, see: M. Royalton-Kisch, Adriaen van de Venne’s Album in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum (London, c. 1988), for example folios 71, 73, 79, 82, and 94. I would like to thank Henriette Rahusen for identifying this visual source.
Floris van Dijck and Nicolaes Gillis also used diagonals of the folds of a white tablecloth and a diagonal placement of the knife to draw the viewer’s eye into their paintings, but they did not integrate these pictorial elements as did Pieter Claesz. In their paintings, the knife’s diagonal is opposite those of the folds of the tablecloth, whereas with Claesz they are in the same direction.
Claesz’s tabletop still lifes often contain symbolic associations about the transience of life, but none are evident in this masterpiece.
For a discussion of vanitas images in Claesz’s early still-life paintings, see Christian Klemm, “Mors ultima linea rerum: Prehistory and foundations of the Skull Vanitas” in Pieter Biesboer, et al. Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life (Zwolle, 2004), 70–90.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
June 14, 2015
on the knife blade, initials in monogram: PC 1627
Acquired, probably in 1827, by private collector, England; by descent in the family; (sale, Sotheby's, London, 8 July 1999, no. 4); (consortium of dealers, including Otto Nauman, Ltd., New York); sold to James X. Mullen, Boston; purchased 26 November 2013 through (Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York) by NGA.
- The Poetry of Everyday Life: Dutch Paintings in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2002, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem; Kunsthaus, Zurich; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2005, not in catalogue (shown only in Washington).
The support is a horizontally-grained oak panel
The wood was identified by the NGA scientific research department (see report dated November 13, 2015 in NGA conservation department files).
Covering the surface of the panel, but not the edges, is a very thin, smooth, off-white ground. The paint consists of layers ranging from transparent to totally opaque. Claesz sometimes applied his paint thinly, allowing the ground to play a role in the final image. He used a variety of brushes and manipulated the paint in a range of techniques to mimic or reproduce the textures of the objects on the table. Claesz often formed the shadows by running paint layers into one another and then pulling a small stiff brush into a scallop or wave pattern across the area. He created the diagonal shadow in the background between the pitcher and the flower in the peacock’s beak by moving wet paint aside with his brush. Although he applied some paint wet-into-wet, he mostly painted this image wet-over-dry.
Infrared reflectography at 1.5–1.8 microns
Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara InSb Focal Plane Array camera fitted with an H astronomy filter.
The painting is in very good condition. Two cracks stem from the right edge of the panel toward the center and a crack runs across the entire panel just below the edge of the table. Small cuts and notches into the panel and the paint layers are found along the left, right, and top edges, some of which have been filled and inpainted. Fifteen horizontal cuts and notches are found on the right edge, and eight on the left. One notch has been made at the top, but there are no cuts or notches along the bottom edge. These may have related to a design transfer process. The paint is cracked around these notches, indicating that they were made after the paint had dried.
There is inpainting around the edges, along the joins and the cracks, and in scattered other areas. Although there are no major areas of loss or extensive restoration, an L-shaped damage in the paint and ground layers exists on the plate of candies behind the nuts. The varnish layer is somewhat dull here. The painting has not been treated since its acquisition in 2013.
- Baer, Ronni. The Poetry of Everyday Life: Dutch Paintings in Boston. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2002: repro. 85.
- Brunner-Bulst, Martina. Pieter Claesz.: der Hauptmeister des Haarlemer Stillebens im 17. Jahrhundert: kritischer Oeuvrekatalog. Lingen, 2004: 161-164, 218, no. 25.
- Wheelock, Arthur K, Jr. "The Evolution of the Dutch Painting Collection." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 50 (Spring 2014): 2-19, 24, repro.