Drink and grapes

Grapes, glasses and other drinking paraphernalia were initially depicted in still lifes and genre scenes for their pictorial qualities. Frequently, however, it is was precisely these objects that gave the picture a deeper significance.

Still lifes are often composed of objects that are closely connected with the culture of drinking and eating, portraying not only the food and drink common in the Dutch Golden Age, but also how these were enjoyed. For that reason still lifes also form a useful source of information, with some pictures showing costly glass and silverware, while others depict the simpler earthenware or pewter used by ordinary folk. Artists were fascinated in addition by the wide variety of new and exotic merchandise that came back from distant lands in cargo ships. Foreign products such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glass, shells and crustacea from far-off shores, and rare flowers, fruits and insects were exquisitely juxtaposed with long-familiar native objects. Wine and grapes were also commonly depicted in many still-life pictures. The realistic representation of drink glistening in precious glassware or the bloom on light-green or dark-blue bunches of grapes was an exceptional challenge for the painter. Yet, despite their huge technical skill, still-life painters were not the most highly prized artists. In his eighteenth-century biography of painters, Samuel Hoogstraten refers disparagingly to them, even describing them as ‘the common (ordinary) soldiers of the field army of art’.

Tours de force
Hoogstraten is inconsistent in his views, however, because in his Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkunst (Introduction to the Art of Painting) of 1678 he explains in detail how the two most famous ancient Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, competed with each other in painting still lifes. Houbraken himself painted uncommercial, but intellectually highly esteemed, history pieces. Still lifes were commercial, as illustrated by the sheer number that were produced. The genre demanded immense specialisation and a high level of perfection, so possibly there was a certain measure of jealousy in Houbraken’s metier.

The story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios was well-known. For many years Zeuxis’s art was considered superior to all in ancient Greece. Birds were said to fly down onto his pictures to pick at his grapes. Nevertheless Parrhasios managed to surpass him. He painted a curtain to cover one of his pictures with such consummate skill that his rival Zeuxis was deceived into thinking it was real. Curious about the painting he tried to raise the curtain, and so lost the competition: fooling a human being was obviously more skilful than deceiving a bird. In the seventeenth century, the painting of grapes was one of the trials that a pupil had to undergo to qualify as a master painter.
Matthijs Naiveu’s still life, illustrated here, brings to mind that famous painting competition. The picture, a painted niche with grapes on which a variety of insects are settling, is a perfect piece for the current exhibition. Grapes are the basis of wine, the noblest of drinks. Furthermore Naiveu was associated with beer, Holland’s most popular drink, being appointed inspector of hops by the city of Amsterdam in 1696.

The symbolism of drink and grapes
Numerous meanings have been attributed to the grape and wine through the ages. In painting they represent not only painterly skill, but also convey a Christian and moral message. Wine is chiefly associated with the blood of Christ and the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus compared himself to the vine and his followers to grapes (John 15:1-6), and religious representations, such as the Last Supper, the Supper at Emmaus and Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, frequently include a still life with wine and grapes. From the sixteenth century on, grapes and wine also became secular symbols – harking back to the visual language of classical antiquity. Grapes symbolised Autumn in paintings depicting the Four Seasons, Bacchus, the god of wine, was crowned with a garland of grapes and grapes were also a metaphor for gluttony or greed, one of the seven deadly sins.

Popular drink devoid of meaning
While considerable use is made of the allegorical significance of grapes and wine in painting and literature, no such underlying symbolism is attached to beer. Indeed when a glass of beer does figure in a still life, it is mainly for the decorative effect of this light-brown drink with its white crown of froth. Even beer’s prime ingredient the hop, an exuberant climber with a characteristic bell-shaped flower, rarely graces a composition. Perhaps this is because there are no references to beer in the Holy Scriptures. Rather beer suggests excess and indulgence in futile pastimes, aspects mainly depicted in genre pieces.

Still lifes with drink
Still lifes were mainly prized for their decorative value, and were only occasionally imbued with a symbolic message. Although drink, drinking paraphernalia and grapes are often portrayed in still lifes, they seldom carry an allegorical charge. A still life with grapes with a religious undertone, such as Naiveu’s painting, is exceptional. The same is true of Clara Peeters’s still life that was extensively written up in the first issue of Hoogsteder Journal. Here a berkemeyer and a façon de Venise glass with red and white wine, together with fertility symbols and bridal parure, denote man and woman joined in marriage.

Vanitas symbols are more frequently encountered. It is of course possible to read a vanitas theme into virtually any still life. A bunch of grapes invariably has one overripe berry, or there is a crack in a glass, both of which could suggest a reference to the ephemeral nature of life and the vanity of earthly pleasures. But caution is required. The surest indication that a still life contains a reference to the transience of earthly life is the presence of specific vanitas symbols, such as a skull, an hourglass or clock.
This is unequivocally the case with Willem Claesz. Heda’s vanitas, on loan for the exhibition from the Bredius Museum. Alongside typical vanitas objects, such as smoking paraphernalia, a coal-brazier and a skull, the picture also features a römer fallen on its side. In this context one can safely say that the fragile glass is an allegory of the vulnerability of mortal existence.

From banketjes to still lifes
The word still life was not in use in the Netherlands in the first half of the seventeenth century. Documents from that period describe this category of painting according to the subject: banketje (banquet), ontbijtje (breakfast), keuckentje (kitchen), toebackje (tobacco), dootshoofd (skull) or vanitas. These definitions became blurred around the mid-seventeenth century with the vogue for exuberant pronkstilleven – ‘still lifes of display and ostentation’ – which could no longer be categorised under a single name. As far as we know the term still life dates from 1650, the year it first appears in a Delft estate inventory to denote a picture with a glass and a lemon on a table. Such works were also described as ‘still-standing objects’, ‘still-standing work’, ‘still-lying goods’ and ‘still-standing life’. The word still life seems to have become common currency around 1670.

Jurriaen van Streeck’s picture is a typical pronk still life, in which we are free to detect vanitas themes, although these are not forced upon us. The silver wine jug in auricular style was an extremely costly object; the Chinese egg-shell porcelain dish and the Venetian glass could only belong to the wealthy. Riches, however, are all in vain and cannot be taken with after death. And death comes to us all, just as it does to the crabs and shrimps. In fact, towards the close of his own life this painter of still lifes with drink kept an inn in Amsterdam.

Pronk still lifes could be either simple or lavish, and were bought for their beauty and decorative value rather than for any vanitas message. This is true of Abraham van Beijeren’s magnificent pronk still lifes. His picture featured in the exhibition reflects the wealth of goods that were available at the time of the Dutch Republic. Countless costly flowers, an exotic Nautilus shell, a silver-gilt akelei goblet, a lobster on a silver platter, grapes: a sumptuous profusion indeed. In the midst of this abundance stands a römer filled with white wine – alone and starkly simple, its base garlanded with flowers. It is the glorification of wine, the apotheosis of drink, drinking paraphernalia and grapes. The römer gleams in the light, with the convex glass subtly reflecting the painter’s workshop. Wine and painting united in one glass.

    Abraham van Beijeren

    The Hague 1620/1621 - 1690 Overschie

    Pronk Still Life (Glorification of Wine)

    c. 1650
    Canvas, 115.5 x 89.3 cm
    Private collection

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    Arnold Boonen

    Dordrecht 1669 - 1729 Amsterdam

    Boy and a Girl in a Niche

    c. 1700
    Canvas, 55.2 x 42 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Willem Claesz. Heda

    Haarlem 1593/’94 - 1680/’82 Haarlem


    Signed WCheda.1628. (bottom right)
    Panel, 45.5 x 69.5 cm
    Bredius Museum, The Hague

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    Willem Kalf

    Rotterdam 1619 - 1693 Amsterdam

    Still Life with a Silver Jug

    Canvas 71.5 x 62 cm
    Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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    Matthijs Naiveu

    Leiden 1647 - 1726 Amsterdam

    Grapes in a Niche

    Canvas, 57 x 46.5 cm
    Painted circa 1680/1700
    Signed : Naiveu (left on plinth)
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Jurriaen van Streeck

    Arnemuiden 1632 - 1687 Amsterdam

    Still life with Silver Jug, Seafood and a Chinese Bowl

    Signed: J.v.Streeck (bottom centre)
    c. 1660
    Canvas, 58.5 x 46 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Jan Verkolje

    Amsterdam 1650 - 1693 Delft

    Distinguished Gentleman and Lady in an Interior

    c. 1690
    Canvas, 103.2 x 82.2 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Artus Wolffort

    Antwerp 1581 - 1641 Antwerp

    Supper at Emmaus

    c. 1630
    Canvas, 120 x 172 cm
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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