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Osias Beert was one of the principal pioneers of still life painting in the Netherlands, but not much is known of his life. He was probably born in Antwerp around 1580, and seems to have lived there all his life, becoming master of the Painters' Guild in 1602, and dying late in 1623. Although his paintings are highly distinctive, few of them are signed, and none are dated. There is thus little basis for a chronology of his work, although a small handful of his paintings are on coppers bearing date stamps of the manufacturer, Peeter Stas (between 1607 and 1609). The large and expensive copper plate used for this picture also bears in the center of the reverse the stamp of the coppersmith Peeter Stas and the countermark of the Antwerp Guild (see fig. 1). Stas' mark changed quite often in the first decade of the 17th Century, but then seems to have stabilized in the form we see here around 1609. This elaborate form of the Guild stamp, incorporating the two hands and castle from the armorials of the city of Antwerp is most unusual on a copper plate, though it is similar to that found in the reverse of some oak panels (a single hand is the usual form). It is found however, accompanied by a Stas mark of the present form and a date stamp of 1610 on the reverse of a Jan Brueghel the Elder landscape on copper of the same year.1 This evidence together with stylistic similarities with other works generally dated circa 1610 support a dating of this picture to this year. Beert must have had an active workshop, and probably posthumous followers, because works of lesser quality that are wholly or largely in his style but not from his own hand abound. It is in a small number of his very best works, of which this picture is an outstanding example, that his artistic personality can best be appreciated and understood.
It is perhaps surprising that Beert's paintings seem to owe very little to those of his townsman and slightly older contemporary, Jan Brueghel the Elder, who probably started producing still life paintings in Antwerp a year or two before Beert, and who outlived him by a mere two years. Brueghel's influence on still life painting throughout the North and South Netherlands and beyond was profound and long-lasting. The compositions of some of Beert's flower paintings do reveal an awareness of Brueghel's work, but their handling is entirely different. His still lifes of sweets and other confectionary, crystallized fruits, nuts and glass- and silverware, of which this picture is a sublime example, as well as those showing oysters and olives, are breathtakingly original. He will have been aware of the much more broadly painted still lifes of the slightly older Hieronymus Francken the Younger, and it should be assumed that those works which are closest to Francken, and share to a degree his gaucheness, are early works, dating from around 1600. Some of these also suggest he may have seen paintings by the German painter Georg Flegel, although comparable still lifes by Flegel are almost contemporary in date with those of Beert. In the case of the younger Jacob van Hulsdonck however, any similarities are almost certainly due to Beert's influence, rather than vice versa, as Van der Willigen and Meijer observed.2 Osias Beert was a truly original talent, and one of the key pioneers of still life painting in Europe.
The late Edith Greindl, the only art historian to have a made a close study of Beert's work, admired this painting above all others.3 She wrote of it: "La qualité d'exécution ... surpasse sensiblement celle de bien d'autres oeuvres de l'artiste. Ici, la netteté de la touché frise le procédé du trompe-l'oeil. Une telle virtuosité technique pourrait nuire à l'aspect esthétique de la composition si Osias Beert l'Ancien n'avait pris soin d'user d'un coloris des plus raffinés. Le ton mauve du tapis de table s'assombrit insensiblement jusqu'a l'arrière-plan; la nuance vert olive du décor des plats de Chine se détache sur la teinte du tapis et fait valoir les nuances rosées des gateaux; du rouge grenat brille dans les fruits confits at se répète, mêlé d'un soupçon de brun, dans le verre précieux où chatoie le vin de Bourgogne"4
(The quality of execution... is palpably above that of many other works by the artist. Here, the fineness of the brushstrokes grazes the effects of the trompe l'œil. Such a technical virtuosity could damage the aesthetic aspect of the composition if Osias Beert the Elder had not taken care of using a more refined palette. The purple hue on the tablecloth darkens imperceptibly in the background; the shade of olive green in the decoration of the Chinese dishes stands out against the tint of the carpet and emphasizes the shades of pink in the cakes; garnet red shines in the candied fruits and repeats itself, mixed with a touch of brown, in the precious glass in which shimmers the wine of Burgundy).
The elements comprising this still life are familiar ones within Beert's oeuvre. In the center and left of the foreground are two Wan-Li Chinese export porcelain vessels, of a type known colloquially in Dutch as Kraak because early examples had been salvaged from captured Portuguese ships known as cararcas. Behind them are two pewter plates and three pieces of glassware, a tazza and two glass cups-on-feet, probably manufactured in The Netherlands, but known as Façon-de-Venise because they are made in the style of Venetian glass. The center glass is filled with red wine of a deep color, and the tazza contains white wine which shimmers, perhaps because it is frizzante. Beert delights in the depiction of light being reflected in and refracted by the glass, and the way the wines alter the effects of light. In the center glass a window is seen reflected on its surface, and while the light source is from the left, Beert perfectly captures the way light, having passed through the glass, light up its shaded side as if in a luminous half-tone.
The spun-sugar sweets, marzipan cakes and confectionary immediately catch the eye in this painting. Sometimes known as "Dessert Pieces," still lifes such as this by Beert were undoubtedly painted in praise of a refined cane sugar, then a brand new commodity whose import to The Netherlands began at the end of the 16th century, and when the present picture was painted was only just starting to replace honey as a sweetening agent, first in medicine, and then, as here, in culinary use in wealthy port cities such as Antwerp. On the plate to the front left are arrayed almonds and sugared-almonds, mixed with long white strands of 'rock candy'. These are sticks of large semi-transparent crystals grown slowly over a period of days on sticks or strings suspended in warm sugar solution and flavoured with flower essences such as rose or violet. These would be sucked or crunched. The larger curved and circular white sweets are probably 'Manus Christi' - beautifully delicate white confections cut into pieces and known from around 1600 and the early years of the 17th century. These were made from a candied mixture of highly refined sugar boiled with flavourings, usually rose water, and mixed with gold leaf. Some versions were expensively perfumed with musk or ambergris and included ground up pearls.
Displayed in the bowl in the center is a selection of sweetmeats in the form of comfits and larger cakes. These varied considerably in shape and size and this variation was considered an attractive quality. Many comfits were based on whole spices such as cinnamon slivers and sticks, ginger, orange rind, which were then covered in a hard layer of sugar. It is likely, given the presence of almonds in this picture, that some of the cakes also contain marzipan. Such cakes were considered good for digestion and were extremely expensive. Whiteness was considered desirable in comfits as it showed they had been properly dried and would keep well. Alternatively it was common for comfits to be colored by adding dye to the final coats of syrup. Red was a very popular color and by the 16th century 'sanders' (powdered sandalwood) was used to achieve the dusky red color.
Gold and silver leaf was often laid on comfits and cakes for decorative purposes and also because both precious metals were believed to have medicinal properties. The prominent display of a bowl of comfits, particularly with gold or silver leaf on them, was used to demonstrate the wealth, power and status of the owner. These squares may clearly be seen applied to the surfaces of the cakes in the central bowl and embossed with designs. Beert as moreover clearly aware of the confectioner's art, because he has here used squares of gold leaf applied to the painted surface of the cakes, and overlaid with glazes to recreate the embossing.5 The cake in the shape of a little box with curved handles in the center may indeed be an edible vessel, which would contain small comfits. Also to be seen in the center bowl are comfits in the form of ring and cracknel biscuits, some of which are also decorated with squares of embossed gold and silver leaf, and to the back right and the left are slices of sugar bread, similar to those we are familiar with today.
The pewter plate to the rear left contains confectionary made in the shape of sea shells and razor-clams. Similar items may be seen in other still lifes by Beert. The have a glistening, crisp, sugary appearance, the white sugar forming luminous patterns on their surfaces within this shaded part of the composition. If it was not for their rocaille form, one might suppose they were crystallized fruit, but it is more likely that they were made from quince paste. In the late 16th century, quince delicacies, derived from the Portuguese marmelo, could be elaborately shaped with moulds or "printed" with motifs or heraldic crests. By the 16th century confectioners had learned the art of manipulating the color of the quince paste by varying how the quince was cooked; rapid boiling produced a pale orange color approaching white, or slow, covered simmering produced a deeper red color. The juice of barberries and cochineal could be added to enhance the color. Quince paste and jelly concoctions were also believed to aid digestion which is why they were often served at the end of a meal. The corresponding pewter plate to the right bears chestnuts, also frequently included by Beert in his still lifes.
As well as delighting the eye, this lavish display of expensive confectionary and costly glassware was almost certainly intended to remind the viewer of the perils of pride and gluttony and the transitory nature of earthly pleasure. The placing of a cruciform sugar sweet and the end of a cracknel biscuit resembling a bone fragment in the center foreground underscores this Vanitas meaning.
Rich assortments of confectionary are found in many other works by Beert but in few other Netherlandish still lifes of any date (except in a few early works by Clara Peeters that are strongly influenced by Beert), but they, and especially the spun-sugar sweets are familiar to us from the paintings of Georg Flegel, and it is reasonable to speculate that the two artists, though separated by several hundreds of miles along the course of the river Rhine, were aware of each other's work.
1. See J. Wadum, in M. Komanecky (ed.), Copper as Canvas, exhibition catalog, New York & Oxford 1999, p. 110, reproduced p. 106, fig. 5.18.
2. See A. van der Willigen and F.G. Meijer, A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-life Painters Working in Oils 1525-1725, Leiden 2003, p. 114. For their entry on Beert, see p. 32.
3. Marie-Louise Hairs was the first to write about Beert, and wrote about him in a number of publications over several decades, but she largely confined herself to Beert's activities as a flower painter.
4. See Greindl under Literature, 1983, p. 27.
5. Silver leaf would tarnish, and so was not used.
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