Eye Candy for Today: Pieter Claesz still life

Still Life, Pieter Claesz
Still Life, Pieter Claesz

In the collection of the Timken Museum of Art (larger version here).

Usually, 17th century Dutch still life paintings like this one are named by modern curators with descriptive titles that include some of the objects pictured.

The Timkin simply calls this one “Still Life”, but they mention in their description that it combines two themes that were common in still life painting at the time: smoking paraphernalia and “breakfast pieces”; the latter meaning a light meal and not necessarily breakfast.

While the fish are certainly recognizable, I don’t know what is in the dish behind them. [Addendum: Mystery solved. See this post’s comments.]

As usual, I love Claesz’s little touches of masterful painting — the reflection of the fish in the metal plate, the texture of the stoneware and the wonderfully subtle backlighting on the tipped-over tankard.

4 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Pieter Claesz still life”

  1. Might the back dish contains hot coals, as the three upright prongs on its top edge suggest the plate of fish could be placed over the heat for cooking / keeping warm ?

    1. Thanks, Damian!

      Yes, I believe you’re right. At first glance, I thought it looked like something burning or hot, and tried to connect it to the smoking materials, but couldn’t make sense of it that way. Now that you mention that use, I can see the feet projecting up from the heating dish — perfect for holding the dish with the fish, and a good reason the latter is metal!

  2. Hi Charley,

    I had exactly that question years ago, because those dishes appear in many paintings from the period. I can’t remember where I uncovered this bit of arcana (I think it was commentary about one of Heda’s smoking pieces), but the explanation I saw was that the coals in the brazier were used to light the thin sticks of kindling (see them tied up in bundles underneath the pipe), which were in turn used to light the pipe. Of course there’s no reason it couldn’t have served double duty – the three raised feet on top do seem to make it a perfect chafing dish as well 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jeff.

      Yes, it makes even more sense if the seemingly different subjects — which the museum’s page indicates were usually separate sub-genres — are tied together by the joint use of the coals.

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