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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Pieter Claesz/Still Life with Peacock Pie/1627,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed May 27, 2024).

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Jun 14, 2015 Version

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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.[1] Dominating the tabletop is a large peacock pie decorated with the fowl’s own head and neck as well as wings and tail feathers, a showpiece only served on special occasions. This spectacular presentation, which is given added visual prominence by the pink carnation in the peacock’s beak, is complemented by an array of foods, including a roasted pheasant, olives, lemons, breads, shiny red-and-yellow apples, velvety peaches, nuts, and candies. Claesz presented these delicacies, many of which would have been imported from foreign lands, on beautifully rendered pewter platters or in Wan-Li bowls. A small mound of precious salt in a gilded saltcellar provides spice to the meal. Finally, a berkemeier filled with white wine that had been poured from a long-spouted pewter pitcher adds to the banquet’s festive character.

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.[2]

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.[3] Although it seems unlikely that such elaborate game pies were frequently made for banquets, a surprisingly diverse array of them are depicted in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings, including swan pies, turkey pies, and pigeon pies.[4]  Occasionally, such pies appear on the tables of merry company scenes, where elegant revelers enjoy the finer things of life [fig. 1].

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.[5] It seems unlikely, however, that a peacock pie such as this one would have actually been eaten at a banquet.  Most likely, it would have remained on the table as a decorative element, surrounded by the other foods, including the centrally positioned roasted pheasant, a much tastier game bird than the peacock.

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 [fig. 2]. One can only imagine that the success of one of these paintings inspired the creation of the second, which was presumably commissioned by a different patron.[6]

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.[7] Three pairs of notches actually line up horizontally.[8] Microscopic examinations reveal that cracks appear in the paint surrounding the notches, indicating that the latter were made after the paint had dried, and hence after the painting had been completed.  A few notches, at comparable heights, are found along the right edge of the Rijksmuseum panel, a finding that supports the hypothesis that Claesz used a transfer system (perhaps nothing more than strings crossing the panels at regular intervals) when he created the second version.

Claesz did not invent the banquet piece, for his predecessors in Antwerp, among them Osias Beert the Elder (Flemish, c. 1580 - 1624), and Haarlem, particularly Floris van Dyck (c. 1575–1651) and Nicolaes Gillis (1595–1632), had painted similarly sumptuous tabletop still lifes earlier in the century [fig. 3] and [fig. 4].  However, Claesz subtly transformed the character of such scenes to make them more realistic. By lowering the vantage point of his paintings, objects not only rest comfortably on a table’s surface, they also overlap one another, helping to indicate a logical recession into space. Importantly, Claesz harmonized his arrangements with a remarkable sensitivity to light. In this painting, light flooding the scene creates shadows along the folds and creases of the tablecloth.[9] The objects on the table cast shadows of varied weight and density, among them the cream-colored shadows caused by light passing through a translucent glass of wine. Particularly remarkable is the array of reflections Claesz captured on the surface of the bulbous-shaped pewter pitcher, including various images of the sunlit window and even the effect of light passing through the berkemeier.

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),[10] cut lemon, and crumpled napkin, all of which indicate a human presence. The lemon peel, moreover, falls over the table edge at the very front of the picture plane. Claesz’s ability to capture a wide variety of textures, whether the white crisply ironed linen tablecloth, rough lemon peels, or the reflective surfaces of polished pewter, further enhances the painting’s realistic character.

Claesz proudly signed and dated this painting on the blade of the ivory-handled knife resting in the middle of the composition.[11]  The prominence of the diagonally placed knife in this and other of Claesz’s paintings from the 1620s seems to have been, in part, a calculated device to draw the eye to a featured element in the composition. Significantly, the knife tip rests on the pewter dish with its cooked fowl, thus simultaneously pointing to this prized offering and providing the means to cut its savory meat. The special character of this central portion of the meal is evident in the decorative arrangement of precious salt crystals on the plate’s rim. Claesz utilized the diagonals of the knife, the slender, black leather knife case at the left,[12] and the folds of the tablecloth to draw the eye into the painting, thereby helping to integrate the various round platters, bowls and glasses on the table.[13] These diagonals encourage the viewer’s eye to move across the table from one object to another in a measured rhythm, pausing only long enough at each to enjoy its visual delights.

Claesz’s tabletop still lifes often contain symbolic associations about the transience of life, but none are evident in this masterpiece.[14]  Instead, this glorious work celebrates the prosperity that the Dutch had achieved through their careful nurturing of the land and their extensive trading network to the far reaches of the world.  Large and sumptuous in its presentation, this impressive work would have been hung proudly in a burger’s home as a demonstration of the burgeoning success of the Dutch Republic.

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;[1] (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.

Associated Names

Mullen, James X., Mr.

Exhibition History

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).
Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2015-2016, 263 fig. 1 (shown only in Salem).
Slow Food: Dutch and Flemish Meal Still Lifes, 1600-1640, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2017.
Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2021, no. 13, repro.

Technical Summary

The support is a horizontally-grained oak panel[1] comprised of at least three boards. There are two distinct joins, one running through the overturned glass on the table and the other located just below the swell in the top of the pitcher. The original joins were probably attached with an adhesive; however, splines have now been set into the wood to reinforce them. Very likely this reinforcement was added when the wood panel was thinned and attached to a cradle.

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[2] reveals changes around the pitcher at the left and along the left edge of the table. Claesz also initially painted an object under the glass that looks like a blade of some sort. One can also see that the plate under the poultry was fully realized before the roasted fowl was painted. The patterned tablecloth must have been painted after the fruit, since its diagonal decoration does not extend under the fruit.

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.

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