This gloriously cluttered picture seems to suggest the aftermath of a rich banquet that’s gone a little too far. Objects sit on the table at a perilous angle or materialise from nowhere, but the one that takes centre stage is secure. It’s called a nautilus cup and is meant to impress. It’s made from a real nautilus shell, at the time a rare and costly item.
A feast should have food, and Heda places a huge fish on a pewter plate. But it’s on the edge of the table, easily knocked off; the glasses next to it also tip sideways. Heda doesn't necessarily want to give a feeling of instability. He may have used this method to show skill at projecting objects into space towards us.
The fish, salt and nautilus all have a connection to the sea – perhaps the picture was a commission from a guild of merchants who dealt in such goods.
This gloriously cluttered picture suggests the aftermath of a rich banquet that’s gone a little too far. Objects sit on the table at a perilous angle or seem to materialise from nowhere, but the one that takes centre stage is secure. It’s called a nautilus cup and is meant to impress. It’s made from a real nautilus shell, at the time a rare and costly item. On top are the gilded figures of Neptune and some feisty-looking tritons, his fierce mythical attendants, riding a sea-horse with wings. At the base, a merman takes the strain of holding the cup and the heads of sea-monsters look out below him.
A tube ending in a silver dragon’s head lies beside the nautilus, seemingly coming from nowhere. If it were upright, we‘d see that it’s the spout of an ornate silver jug – the dragon’s head forms its tip. Looking down at the jug is a small silver figurine of a soldier, dressed in the costume of a hundred years before. Behind him a roemer (a stumpy wine glass with florets of glass on the stems) seems to float in mid-air until you see that it’s tucked into a clip attached to his back. Beside him there’s a bowl holding rock salt, another precious commodity, and a half-full tankard of beer.
A feast should have food, and Gerrit Willemsz. Heda has placed a huge fish on a pewter plate. But it’s on the edge of the table, easily knocked off; the roemers next to it are also in danger. They tip slightly on the lip of a shallow dish that protrudes out from the table. Gerrit doesn’t necessarily want to give an impression of instability – he may have used this method to show skill at projecting objects into space towards us.
Parts of the picture are well painted: the nautilus, the crispy textured flesh of the fish, the soldier, the beer and wine seen through the surface of the glasses, and the reflection of a window in the roemers. The rest is less skilled; the curtain, for instance, is barely sketched in. Gerrit worked for most of his career in the studio of his father Willem Claesz. Heda, so there may have been collaboration. The roemers, the silver jug and the salt pot all appear in paintings by Willem: Still life: Pewter and Silver Vessels and a Crab and Still Life with a Lobster. They may have been part of a stock of such items used as props in paintings.
What was a picture of such a seemingly strange collection of objects for? The clue is, again, in Willem’s pictures. Still Life with a Lobster seems to have been painted for a guild of merchants in Haarlem, where both artists worked, identified by a cipher on the tablecloth. The fish, salt and nautilus all have a connection to the sea. Perhaps Gerrit’s picture was also a commission from a guild of merchants who dealt in such goods.
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