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. 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.
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. 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. Occasionally, such pies appear on the tables of merry company scenes, where elegant revelers enjoy the finer things of life [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Esaias van de Velde, An Elegant Company in a Garden, 1614, oil on panel, Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo Collection.
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. 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] [fig. 2] Pieter Claesz, Sumptuous Tabletop Still Life with Turkey Pie, 1627, oil on panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 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.
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. Three pairs of notches actually line up horizontally. 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] [fig. 3] Osias Beert the Elder, Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine, c. 1620/1625, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1995.32.1 and [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Floris van Dijck, Still Life with Fruit, Nuts, and Cheese, 1613, oil on panel, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem. Photo: Tom Haartsen. 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. 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), 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. 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, 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. 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. 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