Today’s (23 July, 2023) article entitled "Dutch masterpiece on show in UK for first time” regarding a still life by Jan Davidszoon de Heem contains a level of drivel remarkable even by present media standards, and lamentable in an organ of the press as estimable as The Guardian.
The painting is indeed “dazzling”, but the correct interpretation is far from that offered by Mr. Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, where it is to be displayed while the nation struggles to keep it in the UK.
“Anything but still, the picture celebrates life’s sensory pleasures – and the ways that they can be evoked by a brilliant painter. A marvellous disorder of food and drink, the possibility of music, a tumble of glittering treasure, de Heem is asking us to celebrate the world’s abundance even as he asks us to consider what’s really important in life. It’s a question that’s still profoundly relevant.”
In fact, the work, read left to right, illustrates what happens when male and female essence (see the two bottles below left – not “two bugs in a rug”, but “two jugs in a tub”) are mixed after partaking of figs: a child wrapped in the white cloth shown just above the forbidden fruit. Everything else depicted represents the temptations to be encountered in the course of the newborn’s journey through life. It ends on the far right with a black lute (two lutes, please, not one, as stated in the article) lying on its belly next to a black box representing a doodskist – a coffin. Hence, not “the possibility of music”, but the inevitability of death. The larger lute represents the transitory nature of sound, and the clay pipes near the black lute produce smoke, a symbol of “ashes to ashes”.
I cannot believe Mr. Syson is so ignorant of Dutch emblematiek – a toppled vessel, a broken pie, piles of lemons, glittering gold, besides the items already mentioned – as to so misinterpret this picture. I suspect he is engaged in the kind of “uplift” that only serves to distract from the disasters happening all around us. I have difficulty holding the contents of my stomach every time I read the last sentence quoted above. Yesterday Putin’s navy struck a cathedral in Odessa, killing one and injuring dozens, and today thousands are being evacuated from Rhodes as the former island of the Maltese Knights goes up in flames. It might be time to get serious.
It is a pity that no provenance is offered, if known. Such a work would have gone into the hands of a tyrannical feudal prince, or, at best, a wealthy Dutch Calvinist capitalist, who would have been able to “read” it, and hopefully take its lessons to heart…if not divest himself of his interests in the slave trade or the colonisation of ons Indië. The income inequality of Holland‘s Golden Age eventually led to the French Revolution being welcomed to the United Provinces. When will the far more vast inequalities of our day lead to a terrible downfall?
By the bye, it was news to me that de Heem was "the pre-eminent still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age”. I much prefer his son Cornelis, or his teacher David Bailly, or any number of others – with Willem Kalf in first place. But de gustibus, etc.
Prof. Glen Wilson