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Audio Stop 203

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On a tabletop spread with an ivory-white cloth, plates, and white porcelain bowls containing sweets, fruit, olives, and a cooked fowl are arranged around the largest platter, which holds the head, wings, and tail of a peacock stuck into a tall, baked pie, in this horizontal still life painting. The front, left corner of the table is near the lower left corner of the painting, so the tabletop extends off the right side of the composition. The white tablecloth lies over a second cloth underneath, which is only visible along the right edge. The cloth underneath has a leafy, geometric pattern in burgundy red against a lighter, rose-red background. The peacock pie is set near the back of the table, to our right, so it fills the upper right quadrant of the composition. The bird holds a pink rose in its beak. In front of it, near the lower right corner of the painting, a white porcelain bowl painted with teal-green floral and geometric designs holds about ten pieces of pale yellow and blush-red fruit. A pewter plate next to it, to our left, holds dried fruit and baked, stick-like sweets, some covered with white sugar. A pile of salt sits atop a gold, square vessel between the sweets and the peacock pie. Another blue-patterned, white porcelain bowl filled with green olives sits near the back of the table next to a lidded, pewter pitcher with a long spout. Other pewter plates hold a baked fowl, like a small chicken, and, closest to us, a partially cut lemon with its peel curling off the plate. Nuts, more fruit, an ivory-handled knife, bread rolls, and flat biscuits sit on the white cloth among the plates. One glass with a wide stem covered in nubs and a flaring bowl sits near the back, left corner of the table, filled with a pale yellow liquid. An empty glass lies with the upper rim on another pewter plate, to our left. Also on the plate is a bunched up white napkin and a leather case for the knife. The background behind the still life is brown.

Pieter Claesz

Still Life with Peacock Pie, 1627

Celebrity chef Carla Hall examines the vast array of foods available in Claesz’s banquet scene.  

Read full audio transcript

The peacock pie is the headliner in this banquet painting, made in 1627 by Dutch artist Pieter Claesz. It’s surrounded by other costly and imported foods and tableware. They don’t depict an actual meal – rather, they are assembled in this scene to signal the wealth of the person who bought the painting.

It’s all about showing your guest - or the viewer - who you are, what you stand for. Back in the day in 1627, you had to hire an artist to come in and paint your perception of your wealth.   Today, we tend to do it on social media. It’s so beautifully done.

My name is Carla Hall.  I am a chef - a lotta people may know me from Top Chef back in the day, and I'm a lover of all things creative.

Below the pie is a golden saltcellar, and a dish of little candies.

Salt would have been very precious. Sugar would have been precious. In the handwork not only of the candies, but also of the crust, you see that they have help - there are people who are in the kitchen who are doing this work, and they are very skilled.  

Sugar would have come to the Netherlands from American or Caribbean plantations; the olives and white wine, perhaps from the Mediterranean. And the blue and white porcelain bowls would have been brought from China at considerable expense. So this painting alludes to the strength and prosperity of the Dutch trading empire at this time, as well as to the wealth and aspirations of the family who hung it in their home.

Carla’s all in favor of the pie’s perfectly browned crust. But the stuffed peacock on top that spectacularly announces what’s inside?

It's clearly not edible.  In modern times, I would say it is akin to having a burger with 24 karat gold on it.  You don’t eat it, the gold isn't tasting delicious, but you are only having it for wealth and to charge a certain amount because you can.

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