Saturday, 31 May 2008

De Heem, more background

A still life of a rummer garlanded with laurel and flowers on a stone slab half-covered by a gold-fringed, maroon velvet cloth; with oysters, blackberries, an orange and a half-peeled lemon and a chestnut on a pewter dish...again thanks to, although one might quibble with his point about the orange being a homage to the prince of...looks more like a lemon
...characteristic work of the artist of the late 1660s or early 1670s. Firm dating must remain somewhat speculative, since after 1655 de Heem himself inscribed very few paintings with a date, the only known exception being a work of 1675. As a result, it is much more difficult to establish a firm chronology for works from this period than for the first three decades of de Heem’s activity. Subsequent stylistic groups can be clearly distinguished for these last two decades, however – de Heem probably painted very little after the late 1670s.

The painting under discussion belongs to such a group of works, which includes, among others, a large luxury still life at Utrecht, a smaller still life in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, another in Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, and an example that was also with Richard Green Gallery, in 1999.[ii] Slightly earlier is a still life which was with Richard Green in 1993.[iii] The Richard Green example shown in 1999 and particularly the Utrecht still life are more sumptuous compositions, while the Melbourne and even more so the Karlsruhe still lifes are more modest compositions, like the present painting. Another still life that de Heem must have produced around the same time is a panel in the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, of almost the same measurements as this one and the Karlsruhe painting.[iv]

This group of still lifes was no doubt painted during de Heem’s Utrecht sojourn, circa 1665-1672, most likely around 1670. Not only are they clearly further removed from the artist’s firmly datable works of the 1650s, they also show an apparent stylistic relationship with several still lifes by Abraham Mignon (1640-1679). Mignon was strongly influenced by de Heem and both artists shared a studio in Utrecht, which Mignon eventually took over when de Heem returned to Antwerp. Also, the early work of Elias van den Broeck (1649/50-1708), who became de Heem's pupil in 1667, shows an apparent relationship with these still lifes by the master.

Characteristics of these still lifes by de Heem are a smooth, meticulous handling, which is less painterly than works from his previous Antwerp period. They generally have a fairly dark, grey/black background. The depicted objects themselves are strongly lit and rendered with a high degree of detail. In contrast with the tonality of the paintings from the late 1640s and 1650s, which involves various brown hues and warm yellow, in the colouring of these works strong, bright red, blue, green, and orange play an important role, next to significant areas of bright white.

The rummer encircled with a laurel wreath is a recurring motif in the majority of the still lifes from this group mentioned above. In about 1646, in a large still life now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (inv. no.75.3), de Heem adorned such a glass of with a branch – not yet a wreath – of laurel for the first time. During the following decade, he would regularly wind some vine around a glass of wine, and there are also examples where a wreath of ivy has been applied. The regular occurrence of laurel wreaths only seems to have come into his paintings after his move from Antwerp to Utrecht some time during the first half of the 1660s. The same motif can be found in paintings by Abraham Mignon. The laurel is doubtless depicted in its classical capacity of expressing praise – no doubt of the wine - while in combination with the modestly filled glass the motif might allude to temperance.[v]

The orange that occurs in most of de Heem’s still lifes from his second Utrecht period is most probably a direct reference to the house of Orange. De Heem must have been particularly sympathetic to the Orangist movement, in view of his lavish garland around a portrait of the young William III and his still life with a very prominent orange inscribed Vivat Orange.[vi]

Both oysters and lemons were favourite motifs in de Heem’s still lifes throughout his career. The artist kept on exploring their textures – hard shells with a soft, slick content, and during the 1660s he perhaps attained their most realistic representation.

Although, as hinted above, there is most probably a reference to temperance, and perhaps an expression of Orangist sympathies in these still lifes, their main aim is to amaze the viewer with their seeming realism and illusionism, an aim which Jan Davisdz. de Heem was qualified to attain like no other.

Information derived from a report by Fred G Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague.