Still-Life with Grapes
Oil on canvas
Purchased through the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18 Fund and the Florence and Lansing Porter Moore 1937 Fund; 2006.11
This spring the Hood Museum of Art acquired Still-Life with Grapes, a spectacular painting by seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/84). De Heem's sophisticated handling of pictorial elements, so delighted in by his contemporaries, is clearly visible in this sumptuous work of art. The various objects of the composition are deftly woven together and set into a space that seems continuous with our own. The glowing colors and sparkling highlights enliven the picture visually and, above all, create an impression of richness and splendor. The beauty of the painting, like its content, attracts the viewer's attention and provides "sweet fodder for the sight."
De Heem, a native of Utrecht who spent most of his adult life in the city of Antwerp, was an extraordinarily famous and influential painter of still-life in the northern and southern Netherlands and a leader in the development of pronkstillevens (fancy or sumptuous still-lifes). Then as now he was widely admired for his uncanny ability to simulate the appearance of fruit, flowers, and beautiful objects fashioned from silver, gold, and other precious materials.
Still-Life with Grapes, a pronkstilleven that probably dates from 1655-60, testifies to de Heem's standing as an artist of the first rank. A triumph of illusionistic painting in its rendering of textures, space, and the effects of light, it presents a lavish display of natural and man-made objects, including grapes and pumpkins, a costly silver-gilt goblet, delicate wine glasses, and a velvety green cloth with gold fringe. Every item has been depicted with utmost attention to visual truth, and the smallest details—the curling tendrils of a grape vine, the myriad tiny insects, and even the reflections of the artist's studio window on the bosses of the goblet—have been meticulously and faithfully represented. The close observation and superior craftsmanship of Still-Life with Grapes easily met the expectations of seventeenth-century Netherlanders, who placed the highest value on an artist's ability to record objects with a "sincere hand and a faithful eye," in the words of natural philosopher Robert Hooke. These expectations coincided with an equally deep interest in the natural sciences and optics. Animal and plant life were being studied and documented as never before, and previously unknown worlds were revealed in the lenses of the microscope and telescope. This new science was marked by the conviction that knowledge was to be gained chiefly through vision. "I admit nothing but on the faith of the eye," remarked the English philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620. "Those who aspire to discover and know . . . must go to the facts themselves for everything."
About the time de Heem painted Still-Life with Grapes, the Dutchman Johann Comenius published his new theories of education. Seeing is believing, he argued, and the good scholar studies the physical world first-hand as well as through images, learning how to distinguish one thing from another. Visual discrimination was therefore the key to the acquisition of knowledge. De Heem's painting reflects this goal in many ways: the metal goblet is compared to vessels made of glass, the exterior of the goblet is juxtaposed to an interior view of its lid, three different types of grapes are represented, and the plump grapes are compared to the globular bosses of the gilded cup. This picture invites its viewer first to distinguish carefully and then to revel in the colors, shapes, and textures of things.
De Heem’s painting offers much more than a parsing of the physical world, however. Like many other still-life paintings from the period, it contains a hidden layer of Christian symbolism. To a seventeenth-century viewer the grapes, wine, wheat stalks, and corn are traditional symbols of the Eucharist, the peach is a symbol of salvation, and the many insects, because of their short life spans, collectively refer to death. The Eucharistic meaning of the painting is emphasized especially by the goblet in the center of the composition: framed by a stone arch just barely visible in the painting's background, it is given pride of place as if it were a chalice containing the Communion wine. The meaning of Christ’s sacrifice is also suggested by the cascading arrangement of the grapes, wheat stalks, and corn, especially in relation to the nails depicted in the upper left and right corners of the picture. Perhaps an allusion to the lowering of Christ’s body from the cross, it also brings to mind Christ’s words in John 12:24: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." A masterful combination of Christian content and superbly rendered forms, Still-Life with Grapes encourages the viewer to ponder the central mystery of Christianity as it celebrates objects of the material world.
Professor of Art History
Last Updated: 11/14/06