PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
De Heem's first still lifes date from the late 1620s, when he was working in Leiden, and was influenced by the paintings of Balthasar van der Ast and the more muted style of Pieter Claesz. from Haarlem. However, by 1636 he had moved to Antwerp, where he was exposed to the freer, more decorative style of the southern Netherlands. De Heem's great achievement was to synthesize these two approaches and forge a new style that was both painterly and extraordinarily illusionistic. He is perhaps best known today for his innovative pronkstillevens or luxury still lifes, with their tables heaped with exotic food, silver, sea shells, etc., but at the same time he painted smaller works, which though simpler, convey a remarkable sense of the beauty and the physical presence of the objects depicted.
It is this more magisterial style that distinguishes his works of the 1650s. Here in the Still life with a peeled lemon, the various elements of the composition occupy a clearly defined space. This can be contrasted with a similar composition, the Still life with fruit, a façon-de-Venise glass and shrimps, in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe,1 which Meijer dates to 1649. In the latter, the cherries, pomegranate, grapes and figs flow into one another and the composition is slightly more crowded, particularly on the left side. In the Still life with a peeled lemon, the sliced orange, the oyster, the lemon and the plums are clear, individual items, with their own space and mass. The partly peeled lemon is decorative but also serves to increase the illusion of volume and depth, by projecting into our space and leading us into the composition. De Heem then unites the various forms with the strong diagonal lines of the twining grape vine at the left and the plum branch at the right.
We see many of the same elements in a more elaborate work, Still life with fruit, a pie and various drinking vessels in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, dated 1651.2 In another, more austere work of 1652, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris,3 he uses a vertical format, but many of the compositional devices are the same. In all three works, De Heem has set the still life against a dark, undefined background, from which the fruit and tableware emerge. The curling lemon peels and gleaming plates extend beyond the tabletops, seeming to push into the viewer's space, creating a convex structure within the picture. Here, he meticulously paints the individual objects, contrasting the rough, irregular peel with the translucent interior of the fruit and with the delicate skin of the plum to the right. The last is so smooth and shiny that in it we see the reflection of a window. It is through this combination of beautifully painted surfaces and clarity of structure that De Heem created the illusionistic still lifes for which he was justly so famous in his lifetime and today.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred G. Meijer, who has seen the painting in person, for his help in cataloguing this lot.
1 Inv. no. 362.
2 Inv. no. 1041.
3 Inv. no. 1320.
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