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August 14, 2019

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Davidsz still life.jpg

Still Life On A Table
Jan Davidsz. de Heem

For those who enjoy paintings with a lot of skill, detail and symbolism, a still life from the Dutch Golden Age is a good bet. I came across this piece while puttering around on the innerwebs and know nothing about Jan Davidsz. de Heem, so this essay will be all analysis.

There is a lot going on in this piece. It is full of rich color, lush textures, interesting composition, and a lot of symbolism. The dominant colors are in the warm spectrum—reds, oranges and yellows. Orange and yellow control the center of the work. Red, the most vivid and heavy of the warms, is reduced to small dots in the center—in the cherries, grapes and wine. The center’s heat is tempered by a cool frame caused by the black/green tablecloth and grey/blue wall. De Heem saves red’s power for the curtain in the upper right. Notice how almost nothing touches or overlaps the curtain, except for a small fruit in the shadows on the extreme right. Because of this, to me, it looks more like a red wave or force that is pushing the composition (and the eye) towards the bottom left where the watch and vibrant blue ribbon sit. More on the watch later.

The golden center is enriched by the large, silver goblet and platter. This silver should not be thought of as gray (even though it is, technically). Unlike the gray wall, the silver sparkles in the light and reflects the warm colors of the fruit. The goblet especially is as detailed and textured as the fruit and seems as warm and alive. So while the gray of the wall cools the colors on the table, the “gray” of the silver enhances the wealth of the scene.

The table is full of fresh, juicy fruit and different types of wine. Many of the fruits, the orange and lemon especially were symbols of wealth and luxury. These tropical fruits had to be imported which was expensive, hence the meaning. An argument might be made for a religious message in this work. The presence of the grapes, wine, goblet and platter are sometimes references to the Eucharist. There are many works of art that use some or all of these to do so. The absence of any bread does not discourage this. However, I do not think these symbolize that at all. A satyr is carved into the stem of the goblet, a figure associated with drunken orgies, male libido, and wild inhibitions. I think he absolutely erases any sacred connotation. Additionally, oysters were considered an aphrodisiac. I think this work is about the joys of life—good food, luxury, status, and sex, all depicted in meticulous detail for a full sensory experience.

Under all this ecstasy is a warning however, symbolized by the watch. Watches, hourglasses and clocks have always represented the passage of time. They supply the sledgehammer against images of frivolity and wanton carnality. A work of art with these items is called a “vanitas”, Latin for vanity or futility. Other vanitas items are wilting or dead plants, some insects, or bones or skulls. Vanitases became so popular that they eventually became their own sub-genre. Here, de Heem threads a blue ribbon through the watch and the heavy red curtain pushes the entire composition towards it. Lines converge there. The entire painting’s colors seem to follow the spectrum order from top-right to bottom-left: red, orange, yellow and green, ending with blue at the watch. Time affects everything.

Time also anchors everything. Put your hand over the watch and ribbon and notice how the composition suddenly loses cohesion. Everything just hangs there in space. The colors have no logical movement. It looks incomplete. That all the lines lead to the watch— the stem of the goblet, the vine of the grapes, the force of the curtain, the edge of the table—is no accident. The watch is small and its gold blends into the rest of the warms tones. If it weren’t for the electric blue, we might miss it, and the blue is of the same intensity as the red. It has a similar power and arrests the movement from right to left started by the red. Everything stops there.

So, go ahead. Eat, drink, and be merry. Even engage in an orgy or two. Whatever. Time cannot be ignored. All things stop with time.

[Kris has graciously agreed (after much begging from me), to write an occasional art thread. Look for her name in the headline so you won't be surprised to find actual informed art criticism on these august pages]

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posted by CBD at 09:30 AM

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