Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: Banquet Piece with Ham

Willem Claesz Heda was a 17th-century Dutch painter who specialized in breakfast scenes like Banquet Piece with Ham. The artist used a sharply limited set of colors and rendered his compositions in excruciating detail. He produced an almost photographic realism that would have been all the more impressive in his own time. The subject of the painting is largely self-contained, with the diagonal stream of light the only explicit reference to an outside world. Nonetheless, the viewer can uncover tiny reflections of the studio's windows in the wine glass on the left.

Banquet Piece with Ham by Willem Claesz Heda art
The piece was completed in 1656, near the height of the Dutch Golden Age—a time period that saw the Dutch Republic dramatically rise in economic and political power. New wealth spawned a new class of entreprenuers, who feasted on the luxuries depicted in Heda's work, as well as a new a class of artists to record their exploits.

Paintings like Heda's are often called vanitas because they contain objects that symbolize the emptiness of human vanity. Banquet Piece with Ham depicts numerous items of high luxury, but they are chaotically strewn about as if the diners left abruptly. Similarly, it is said, can this life pass abruptly—leaving all of our vanity as discarded as the dishes on this table.

Though Heda rendered this alluring scene meticulously, its effect seems to be lost on our generation. We are saturated with appealing images on a minutely basis, the mildest of which would be some ham, lemon, and oysters. In 1656—more than 150 years before the first photograph—I think this image would have stood out as extravagant and seductive.

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