It is tempting to suggest that the artist's move towards more monochromatic paintings of greater simplicity in composition was brought on by a sense that he had achieved all there was to achieve in his first phase. In fact, it coincided with a tendency towards greater simplicity of composition, and in particular of a move towards a monochromatic, or ‘tonal’ palette popular among his contemporary landscape painters, such as Pieter Molyn, Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruysdael, and is more likely to have sprung from a common aesthetic development, and, as Pieter Biesboer has suggested, a move away from ostentation and towards sobriety and restraint in Dutch society, in tandem with political and religious tendencies.1 Pieter Claesz.’s still lifes become more monochromatic and pared-down in composition during the second half of the 1620s, although there seem to be years when he painted both more traditional and experimentally tonal still lifes, so the progression of his style was not completely linear. It was however, rapid. The first successful exercises in the genre were from 1627, and by 1629, the date of the present picture, he had reached the point of full maturity.
During this period a slightly older Haarlem artist, Willem Claesz. Heda, also started to paint monochrome still-lifes: the first properly tonal dated work by him is of 1628, and he may have intended to be a history painter until then. While we have scant documentary evidence of their relationship, they must have known each other well and been thoroughly familiar with each other’s work. At the outset, Pieter Claesz. seems to have been the dominant figure, but by the early 1630s, both artists were extending their artistic boundaries, although Heda continued to borrow ideas from Pieter Claesz. throughout the 1630s and 40s.2 Both evolved in different directions later on in their careers, and although only Pieter Claesz. had an earlier career that we know much about, in many ways they may be seen as the Picasso and Braque of their day, pushing the boundaries of monochrome still-life painting in Haarlem, rather than of Cubism in Paris (see fig. 1). Both pairs of artists looked at objects in a fresh way, and sought to engage the viewer in looking at everyday objects in a new way; both were intensely interested in the effects of light to define space and volume and to make them comprehensible to the viewer; and both sought to pare down their palette and composition to a minimum so that color does not distract from light and form. Both Pieter Claesz. and Willem Claesz. Heda caught the attention of the Haarlem patriot Samuel van Ampzing, early on, since he praises them in his Haarlem encomium Beschrijvinge ende Lof der Stad Haarlem in its 1628 edition:
‘I cannot leave Pieter Claesz. unmentioned
And likewise should note Heda’s still lifes’3
The present painting dates from the moment when Pieter Claesz. arrived at a fully monochromatic style. In contrast with the tonal landscapists, Claesz. achieves this by choosing objects of a limited palette to occupy his composition. The tones throughout are predominantly yellow, so that the rich yellow of the lemons sit naturally within the color scheme, and green, the color both of the roemer and the wine it contains, as well as the olives on the plate. There are no other colors anywhere within the painting, merely a grayish-yellow tone for the indeterminate ledge on which all the objects sit, and the dark grey to black tones of the shadows, together with the whites of highlights. The vast background, also of an indeterminate space, is rendered in a muted olive-brown, moving from darker tones to the left to lighter ones towards the right, where there is stronger illumination. As usual the painting is lit from the left. The composition appears to be very simple, with no framing elements or repoussoirs, but this simplicity is deceptive, because the apparently effortless informality of the limited number of objects was a far from accidental achievement. The composition is held together by light. The actual light source is from a window behind the viewer’s left shoulder. Though invisible to the viewer, we see its glazing bars with light entering through the panes in a number of places in the composition. The most complex of these is the roemer, whose green glass and green wine also alter the color of the light. The way the artist has captured the light is so complex as to be very difficult to describe accurately, but it is an extraordinary measure of his achievement. At the top we see the window reflected in the outside rim of the roemer’s bowl, and again on the corresponding inside. Lower down it passes through and is reflected by the surface of the wine, having passed through the glass and having been reflected by it. At the far edge it is reflected by the curve caused by the surface tension of wine, though refracted so that it reaches the edge of the glass in two places – something Heda was to do later (see fig. 2). The light from the window is also to be seen on the surface of the wine, but mostly on its under-surface, reflected upwards from the inside submerged curved edges of the roemer. The principal point of reflection is in the lower right part of the inside of the bowl, where the artist has painted it with thick creamy-yellow-green brushstrokes divided by vertical mullions drawn through the wet paint with the point of the brush. Apart from the warty thick skins of the lemons, this is the thickest impasto in the entire painting, and provides an almost visceral anchor of light for its upward reflections. The light from the window is reflected in a myriad of points on the prunts of the base of the roemer, both directly and from refracted sources, and finally emerges as an ethereal glow in the shadow cast by the roemer on the top of the ledge, the shadow of a vertical glazing bar dividing the ghostly incandescence in two.
Light controls and defines the composition throughout. It appears in half tones in the bowl of the roemer, and in the shaded part of the lemons reflected upwards from the surface of the ledge. The exterior of the half-peeled lemon has a lemony-yellow reflection in the silver plate on which it sits, next to a white reflection of the pith. The brilliant yellow of the lemons is also caught in reflection on the ribs of the base of the knife handle and in many tiny points of light on the chased silver of its handle. As Martina Brunner-Bulst noted of works such as this by Pieter Claesz., ‘his skill enables him… to capture the fleeting phenomena of light and lustre and to invest them with permanence.’4
The works that Pieter Claesz. painted between 1628 and 1630, of which this is an outstanding example, came to define the classical Haarlem ontbijtje (breakfast piece). Their elements are not only very limited, but also biased towards objects such as glassware and silver plates rather than foodstuffs, and their purpose is to balance the composition, rather than to represent a meal. As Brunner-Bulst observed, the compositional scheme of the present picture is based on a distorted X-shape, in which the upright roemer to the right is balanced by the over-turned façon-de-Venise wineglass to the left. Overturned vessels in vanitas paintings connote the idea of transience, but such an interpretation here, if relevant at all, is entirely subservient to the requirements of composition.
1. See Biesboer and Brunner-Bulst 2005, p. 18.
2. See Biesboer and Brunner-Bulst 2005, p. 18.
3. S. Ampzing, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der Stad Haarlem, Haarlem 1628, p. 372.
4. See Biesboer and Brunner-Bulst 2005, p. 48.
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