In 1648 a contemporary writer noted that Willem Claesz Heda was a specialist in breakfast and banquet still lifes, painting "fruit, and all kinds of knick-knacks." At first sight, Heda's largest known still-life painting appears to welcome the viewer to a sumptuous feast. Yet pewter plates teeter precariously over the table's edge, while a translucent goblet and a silver tazza have toppled over, indicating that the feast has already been enjoyed. A number of objects in the painting hint at the transience of worldly existence. For example, the snuffed-out candle and the iron candle snuffer symbolize the abruptness by which life can end.
Heda was a master of uniformly cool-gray or warm-tan color schemes favored in Dutch art during the 1630s. The gold, silver, pewter, and Venetian glass on top of the white tablecloth play against the neutral backdrop of the wall and the brown drape that covers the table. Starting in the mid-1600s, brighter colors would characterize the classical period of Dutch painting.
Willem Claesz Heda taught several apprentices, including his son Gerret (or Gerrit) Willemsz Heda (active 1640s and 1650s); the "sz" at the end of Claesz and Willemsz is an abbreviation for szoon, meaning "son of". Gerret's Still Life with Ham that is part of the National Gallery’s collection reveals a strong debt to his father Willem's style and motifs.
This imposing painting displays the remains of a feast on a sumptuously laden table. The care with which the precious vessels were arranged prior to the meal is still evident despite the disarray of the white linen tablecloth, the snuffed-out candle, the tipped-over silver tazza and glass roemer (glass for white wine), and the broken roemer lying on a pewter dish. The focal point of the meal has been the mince pie, which, flavored with currants, raisins, and exotic spices from the Far East, was a special dish reserved for holidays and lavish banquets. Freshly cut slices of lemon added to its flavor. Oysters, seasoned with vinegar from the shell-shaped Venetian glass decanter, complemented the meal. Salt, prominently displayed in the silver salt cellar, and pepper, contained within the paper cone made from an almanac page, were expensive seasonings available to the guests as well. Imported olives and a simple roll rounded out the feast, which would have been washed down with ample glasses of beer.
This banquet piece, one of the largest known still lifes by Willem Claesz Heda, may well have been a commissioned work, although nothing is known of its early provenance. Because of its scale, Heda painted it on canvas rather than on a wood support, which was his norm. Partly because the original canvas has never been lined, the remarkable sheen of glass, pewter, silver, and gilded bronze, for which Heda is so admired, is extremely well preserved. The rich impastos of the lemon peel hanging over the table’s edge likewise have maintained their character. Adding to the harmonious whole is the soft shimmer of the white linen tablecloth as light catches the nuances of the fabric’s texture.
Despite the apparent reality of the scene, which is reinforced by the lifelike scale of the objects, this composition is an artificial construct and does not record the aftermath of an actual meal. By 1635, the date of this work, Heda had already executed a number of similar, albeit smaller still lifes that include many of the same objects in different arrangements and combinations. The silver tazza, for example, appears in three earlier paintings, one dated 1632 and two dated 1634.
See Nicholaas Rudolph Alexander Vroom, A Modest Message, 2 vols. (Schiedam, 1980), 1: no. 335, fig. 71 (private collection, the Netherlands), signed and dated 1632; no. 340, fig. 74 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), signed and dated 1634; no. 341, fig. 67 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), signed and dated 1634.
The other 1635-dated picture in which the tazza appears was auctioned at Sotheby’s, New York, January 10, 1991, no. 66.
Nicholaas Rudolph Alexander Vroom, A Modest Message, 2 vols. (Schiedam, 1980), 1: no. 340.
As far as one can determine, Heda intended to bring together food and objects that might be found on a festive occasion and present them in a harmonious and convincing manner. The composition is arranged in a broad triangular form, its apex defined by the magnificent gilt bronze goblet, whose decorative top is surmounted by the figure of Triton. Heda enlivened his scene through the suggestion of light reflecting off the various objects, and gave the whole immediacy by situating the table in the frontal picture plane. By placing the lemon rind, the pewter plates, and the black-handled knife over the table’s front edge, he created the illusion that they actually protrude into the viewer’s space. Although these compositional ideas had been current in Dutch and Flemish still-life painting from the first decades of the century, Heda utilized them here with unprecedented forcefulness and conviction.
Heda carefully selected the objects in this painting to convey a general thematic message, one frequently encountered in still-life paintings of the time, that the sensual pleasures of the feast and the luxuries of the world are only temporary and not eternal.
For a discussion of these issues see Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Still Life: Its Visual Appeal and Theoretical Status in the Seventeenth Century,” in Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection (Washington, 1989), 11–25.
Jacob Cats, Proteus, ofte, minne-beelden verandert in sinne-beelden, 3 vols. (The Hague, 1629), 1: section title “Emblemata Moralia et Aeconomica,” Emblem XX, “Liceat Sperare Timenti.” I would like to thank Quint Gregory for calling my attention to this emblem.
See Sam Segal, A Prosperous Past: The Sumptuous Still Life in the Netherlands, 1600–1700, trans. P. M. van Tongeren, ed. William B. Jordan (Delft, 1988), 137.
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
See the entry on De Heem’s Flowers with Crucifix and Shell in Beverly Louise Brown and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Masterworks from Munich: Sixteenth- to Eighteenth-Century Paintings from the Alte Pinakothek (Washington, DC, 1988), no. 33, 136–138.
Oysters were seen as a potent aphrodisiac. For a discussion of the meaning of oysters in Dutch art, see Liana de Girolarni Cheney, “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism,” Artibus et Historiae, no. 15 (1987): 135–158.
This interpretation was first suggested to me by Quint Gregory when he was a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in the early 1990s. See Henry D. Gregory, “Tabletop Still Lifes in Haarlem, c. 1610–1650: A Study in the Relationship Between Form and Meaning” (PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2003), 3–18 and passim. Similar ideas are found in still-life paintings by Pieter Claesz. See Anne Walter Lowenthal, “Response to Peter Hecht,” Simiolus 16, nos. 2–3 (1986): 188–190. See also Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Introduction,” in Margarita Russell, Images of Reality, Images of Arcadia: Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Paintings from Swiss Collections (Washington, DC, 1989), 26 and also 50, no. 11. See also Henry D. Gregory, “A Repast to Savor: Narrative and Meaning in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life,” in Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life, ed. Pieter Biesboer et al., (Haarlem, 2004), 97–108.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower right on edge of tablecloth: .HEDA.1635.; lower left on edge of tablecloth: (unidentified monogram) 
 This unidentified monogram is an unusual feature of this painting, as it does not appear to be an artist’s monogram. Dr. Pieter Biesboer, former curator at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, has suggested (verbally) that it is the mark of the linen maker.
Private collection, the Netherlands; acquired 1948 by private collection; by inheritance to a subsequent owner; (sale, Ader-Picard-Tajan, Paris, 22 June 1990, no. 39); purchased by (Galerie Sanct Lucas, Vienna; Bruno Meissner, Zurich; and Otto Naumann, New York); sold 27 February 1991 to NGA.
- Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem; Kunsthaus Zürich; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2004-2005, not in catalogue (shown only in Washington).
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 99-102, color repro. 101.
- Brusati, Celeste. "Natural Artifice and Material Values in Dutch Still Life." In Looking at Seventeenth-century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered. Edited by Wayne E. Franits. Cambridge, 1997: 145, fig. 92.
- Kirsh, Andrea, and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Materials and Meaning in the Fine Arts 1. New Haven, 2000: 262.
- Gregory, Quint (Henry D. Gregory V)."Tabletop still lifes in Haarlem, c. 1610-1660: a study of the relationships between form and meaning." Ph.D. diss., Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland, College Park, 2003: 3-18 and passim.
- Gregory, Quint (Henry D. Gregory V). "A Repast to Savor: Narrative and Meaning in Pieter Claesz's Still Life." In Pieter Claesz : master of Haarlem still life. Edited by Pieter Biesboer. Exh. cat. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem; Kunsthaus Zürich; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Zwolle, 2004: 107, fig. 1.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 192-193, no. 153, color repro.
- "Art for the Nation: The Story of the Patrons' Permanent Fund." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015):11, repro.
The support, a medium-weight, plain-woven fabric that is heavily textured. It is unlined, but because it was delicate, with small tears and fraying where folded over the stretcher, it was strip-lined when the painting was treated in 2011. Small patched holes are found in the upper right corner and in the glass ewer at center. The paint layer continues onto the original tacking margins, suggesting it was painted on a stretching frame.
The support was prepared with a thick mustard-colored ground layer, which is employed as a mid-tone in some passages, namely in the tablecloth. The paint was applied in smooth wet-over-dry layers with impasted highlights. Glazing and fine, opaque scumbling was used to create the transparency of the glass objects. Further texture and definition were given to the reflection of the glass and metallic objects by the application of carefully placed highlights.
The painting is in good condition. A discolored varnish layer was removed during the 2011 treatment. Scattered small losses and areas of slight abrasion were inpainted at that time as well .
Related IconClass Terms
- Roman Catholicism
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- banquet piece
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