Here Jan Jansz. Treck has risen to the challenge of evoking the lustre of and distorted reflections in silver, pewter, glass, porcelain and eggshells as well as the complex shadows in a crumpled linen cloth. It was a highly valued skill in Dutch still-life painting and this rather beautiful example of the genre has a particularly calm aesthetic.
The overall colour scheme is muted, dominated by greys, greens and browns – only the bright red berries stand out. To our eyes, the selection of objects also seems quite mundane: it’s the aftermath of a meal, where the plates, dishes, and a flagon have been temporarily pushed to one side, together with a discarded napkin. But the two blue and white dishes are not normal domestic tableware. They are very expensive late Ming-period Chinese porcelain. These were exotic and highly desirable goods, and this painting is a celebration of luxury.
Still life compositions were one of the most popular genres of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century. A painter’s ability to create a picture with what we now think of as almost photographic realism was highly valued, and the objects depicted were selected partly to demonstrate artistic skill in showing different surfaces and textures. Here Jan Jansz. Treck, a native of Amsterdam, has risen to the challenge of evoking the lustre of and distorted reflections in silver, pewter, glass, porcelain and eggshells as well as the complex shadows in a crumpled linen cloth.
But the choice of objects, how they were arranged and the tone or atmosphere of such paintings varied hugely. In some, a narrative or a moral might be implied and highlighted with dramatic lighting, such as in Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Steenwyck. Objects depicted might be expensive or everyday, the colours rich or muted, the arrangement relatively orderly, or apparently teetering on the verge of disaster.
Looked at in this context, we can see that this rather beautiful example has a particularly calm aesthetic. Though the blues would once have been brighter (the pigment used, smalt, has faded over time) the overall colour scheme is muted, dominated by greys, greens and browns. Only the bright red berries stand out in this otherwise almost monochrome composition.
The selection of objects also contributes to this quietened atmosphere. Very often still-life paintings featured a diverse range of objects which had obviously been gathered together for the painting. And while the montage here clearly didn’t happen by chance, there’s a certain naturalism to it: we might believe that we have stumbled on the aftermath of a meal. Here is one end of a table where the plates, dishes and a flagon have been temporarily pushed to one side, together with a tall wine glass and a discarded napkin. There is only a little wine left in the glass, and someone seems to have had their fill of the berries. There aren’t many left, and only two small bird’s eggs remain in the smaller dish. A bread roll has also been left half eaten, crumbs scattered on the cloth.
One feature does deliberately undercut the naturalism: the vine entwined around the flagon was a motif particular to Treck which he used in several paintings. And a viewer from seventeenth-century Amsterdam would have known that the two blue and white dishes were not normal domestic tableware, but very expensive late Ming-period Chinese porcelain. These were exotic and highly desirable goods, just as the silver spoon and knife were of a design which had come into fashion only recently. So we can see that this is more than just a depiction of the remains of a meal – it is a celebration of luxury typical of Dutch still lifes. Indeed, Treck had used most of the objects shown here in another painting which he made four years earlier (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest), but there the atmosphere is much more stressful, with one of these expensive dishes balanced precariously near the edge of the table.
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