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Old Master Paintings

Decoding the Symbolism in an Ochtervelt Masterpiece

Old Master paintings from the Dutch Golden age, particularly those showing interior scenes, are often loaded with symbolism. Some of the symbols are relatively easy to read, but some may be more difficult to decode because they relate to a different time and culture. Take a look with us at this exceptional work,The Oyster Meal, by Jacob Ochtervelt (a contemporary of Johannes Vermeer) which features in Sotheby's Old Master Paintings sale on 4 July.

Looted during the Second World War and hiding in plain sight for over 70 years, Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal was recently identified hanging in London's historic Mansion House, home to the Mayor of the city. A contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, Ochtervelt was one of the leading Dutch 17th century painters of 'genre scenes' (or scenes of domestic life). 

This painting, like others of the period, is rich in symbolism. In it you will see:

A dish of oysters

Considered a powerful aphrodisiac, oysters have long been associated with love and with sensual pleasure. 

A well-dressed lady

Ochtervelt is widely celebrated for his exceptional ability to capture the sheen of fabrics. The expensive clothes worn by this elegantly-dressed lady suggest that her suitor might have to pay handsomely for her favours.

A dog

Dogs most often appear in western art as symbols of faithfulness, vigilance and watchfulness. This dog, however, is lapping up the wine being spilt from his mistress's glass, and therefore cannot be relied upon to protect her honour....

An empty birdcage

Birds in Dutch art of this period are closely associated with sexual congress. (Not least because in old Dutch slang, the word ‘bird’ was actually used to mean intercourse!) In this picture, the bird has flown the cage, possibly indicating that  this may not be the first time the lady in the painting has received overtures like this…

Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal will be offered in Sotheby’s Evening Sale of Old Master Paintings in London on 4 July. Prior to that it will on view to the public in Sotheby’s London galleries from 30 June to 4 July.

CLICK HERE to view the full sale catalogue.

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