TKC: What role does the painting fulfil in the Getty galleries and how does it interact with the collection of the Getty — with the Dutch and Flemish paintings more broadly and the still lives in particular?
AW: The striking scale and format of the Klesch De Heem suits the size and layout of our galleries. We initially positioned it in the center of the Getty’s largest gallery devoted to Dutch paintings. Banquet Still Life, with its brilliant palette, was a showstopper from the moment it arrived. Our relatively tranquil presentation of landscapes and interiors from the mid-seventeenth century received a jolt! Significantly, it also became possible to plan a future thematic presentation – something that previously had been impossible. In the early summer of 2023, we added Banquet Still Life to our own collection of still lifes by Ambrosius Bosschaert, Christoffel van den Bergh, Jacob van Hulsdonck, Willem Kalf, and Jan van Huysum, and small group of loans that included selected Dutch and Flemish paintings by Clara Peeters, Bosschaert, Peter Claesz, and Adriaen Coorte from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Carter Collection. The special display, Wondrous Abundance: Still Life and Animal Paintings, created a beautiful and diverse arrangement in which viewers could experience a variety specialized subjects and visual strategies from over a century of artistic ingenuity: from early meticulous flower still lifes, to breakfast pieces, and concluding with van Huysum’s fruit and flower spectacles. During my tours for the public, it became clear that still life is one of the most immediately appealing subjects for visitors. The special display demonstrated how still life paintings facilitate engagement by diverse viewers with visual cultures of the past, initially through beauty, and sustained through inquisitive close study and astonished appreciation of painterly skill.
TKC: How has the painting been received by the visitors of the Getty?
AW: Responses by visitors to the De Heem include awe, fascination, and curiosity. It provides a unique and engrossing experience for those seeing it for the first time. Many viewers eagerly study it and marvel at the precise representation of unexpected elements, such as the musical instruments, and are delighted to encounter the various animals, including the caterpillars.
TKC: When first seeing this painting, you are immediately struck by opulence of the display that De Heem depicted. What was the purpose or meaning of an elaborate banquet piece like this?
AW: Intriguingly, De Heem included poems in some of his other still life paintings which may provide insight into some of the ways this work may have been perceived. One such inscription, “Niet hoe veel Maar hoe Eel” (Not now much, but how noble; i.e. quality over quantity), may have encouraged moderation. In general, seventeenth-century still lifes often included objects that refer to the brevity of life (vanitas). Elements such as the ripe fruit may have implied the transitoriness of luxurious pleasures to a seventeenth-century viewer. Although it may be tempting to “read” various elements as having symbolic meaning, in my view De Heem allowed for multiple “messages” here. Perhaps it was understood in the Dutch Republic as a criticism of luxury. In general, Banquet Still Life, with its sophisticated light effects and reflections, also signifies a declaration of skill by the painter.
TKC: Can you talk us through the many elements?
AW: This still life is arranged outdoors on an elegant terrace or in a courtyard open to the sky. A series of horizontal supports presents a variety of largely European luxury objects and food stuffs. An ink well accompanied by sharpened quills, a previously folded sheet of music signed by De Heem, and a recorder lie on a small table in the foreground, next to a stool with striped cover and red velvet cushion supporting single orange. Nearby, the chased silver dish decorated with floral motifs reflects the curved exterior of the overturned lute. The large table covered by a green tablecloth with elaborate metal fringe and a large white napkin presents a repast of walnuts, partially peeled lemon, blackberries, various grapes in a basket, cut melon, a polished platter of shrimp and lobster upon which rests a knife with an inlaid handle, a pomegranate, oysters, a roll, and above on the casket, chestnuts, and peaches. At the center gleams a polished imported turbo shell (Turbo marmoratus), silver shaker and a casket covered in blue silk with keys and a seal in the lock – it perhaps contains bottles of specialized liquors. A small violin, a kit or pochette, with its bow leans against the casket. Drinking vessels provide elegant vertical accents: a silver gilt lobed covered cup, a delicate Venetian-style glass of white wine (behind the basket), a tall flute of red wine, and magnificent roemer of white wine on a silver gilt stand (cup screw; bekerschroef) with the young Bacchus, god of wine, forming the stem. Grapes vines, emerging from around the base of a broken column, continue the banqueting theme and support a cast of small creatures: a great tit, butterfly, striped snail, and caterpillars. On the opposite side, a voluminous dark blue silk curtain with large tassels hangs before a stone wall.
TKC: What is your favourite detail from this painting?
AW: I am always drawn to the lute, with its delicate blue ribbon and wiry strings. The orange, with its crisply delineated leaves and distinctive irregular skin, arrogantly perched on the plush cushion so close to us, exudes character.