Van der Hamen y León, Juan

Madrid 1596 - Madrid 1631
Biography & List of works

Serving Table with Plates of Sweets, Olives and Cheese, a Glass Vessel of Water, and a Terracotta Jar

Serving Table with Plates of Sweets, Olives and Cheese, a Glass Vessel of Water, and a Terracotta Jar


Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 67 x 104 cm



Private Collection, Spain; Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London & C. González-Aller S. L., Madrid.

While surely not conceived as a pair, this painting and the following one have been together for many years and both have, near miraculously, come down to us unlined and, until recently, still attached to their original stretchers.[1]


Van der Hamen’s earliest dated still lifes tend to be arranged on grey stone shelves or in niches, like those of Sanchez Cotan. Even among his earliest works, however, is one  Still Life with Fruit and Birds (El Escorial, Patrimonio Nacional) dated 1621, in which the objects are arranged before a window on a table covered with a sumptuous cloth of scarlet damask.[2] As tabletop still lifes are relatively rare in Van der Hamen’s oeuvre, when the first signed (but undated) example depicting a serving table covered with a white damask cloth was discovered in the 1960s (Fig. 5.2) it was assumed to he a relatively early work.[3] But the discovery of this example, so similar to it and dated in the last three months of the artist’s life, requires a rethinking of the chronology.


Van der Hamen could have been responding in a very general way to tabletop still lifes by such early seventeenth century Northern artists as Nicolaes Gillis, Floris van Dyck and Clara Peeters.[4]  Certainly Juan Bautista de Espinosa’s 1624 Still Life with Silver Gilt Salvers (Fig. s.3) calls such pictures to mind, though its horror vacui and rigid symmetry give it a very different character. It is more likely, as in the case of the Escorial still life, that he had in mind those painted in the 1620s by Frans Snyders, an artist with intimate connections to the Spanish court. In any case, the point is academic, since he is an artist of such strong personality and distinct artistic origins that the dissimilarities between his style and that of any of his northern counterparts far outweigh the similarities.


Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Van der Hamen’s style, like Sanchez Cotan’s before him, was his cultivation of the illusion of three dimensional space. With an Escorial like emphasis on formal purity, he has, in this still life, subtly manipulated a series of forms (edibles and utensils) all derived from primary geometric shapes (circles, spheres and cylinders) and played these against the reticular articulation of the tablecloth and the receding rectangular tabletop. As a result of the powerful play of light and shadow on the creased damask cloth near the picture plane, and the subtle shading of the table’ top, a compelling ‘arena’ is established wherein the richly modelled forms can assume their maximum plasticity. The place of each form is firmly established by the strong, transparent shadows cast toward the right. The sense of atmosphere is further heightened by a subtle grading of the background, where the red ground has been brushed very broadly with initial strokes of a dark, cool umber, graded toward a bluish grey at the right. This layer then received a final blackish glaze that also lightens perceptibly toward the right.[5]


Enhancing the illusion of real presence within this rather cerebral construct is the sensuous modelling of each form. Rarely in Van der Hamen’s oeuvre can this richness be appreciated so fully as in this work, whose surface qualities have never been distorted by lining or excessive abrasion. Indifferent to the sort of microscopic detail sought after by Northern still-life painters, Van der Hamen, with his typically Spanish delight in the physical reality of paint, has freely evoked the surface characteristics of each object: the shimmer of the cotton damask; the dull sheen of the silver plates; the light glinting off the dimpled red-earth Mexican jar and off the surface of spherical glass vessels, one a simple jar filled with preserved fruit and the other a rare Venetian-style lidded vessel filled with water; the sugary surface of candied fruit and pastries; the moist glow of the olives and the creamy smoothness of the cheese with its tough rind; and the variegated grain of the wooden box, each of its nail heads reflecting light, filled to the brim with the translucent jelly of marzipan.


The consumption of elaborate sweets was common at all European courts in the seventeenth century but was indulged in particularly at the Spanish court, where the custom of the merienda, like the English high tea, helped bridge the time before the late evening meal. A high premium was placed in Spain on elegant hospitality, and part of this display of wealth involved the use of extremely costly Venetian-style glassware, some of it imported and some of it made in Spain. Although Van der Hamen was celebrated for the full range of his still-life subject matter, Francisco Pacheco wrote in 1649 that he was best at painting sweets.[6] A normal feature of his still lifes in this vein was the depiction of glassware, which he cultivated to a high degree.


Despite their rarity in Van der Hamen’s oeuvre, there is documentary evidence, in addition to actual pictures, to indicate that he was beginning to make table-top still lifes at the end of his life. We do not know the circumstances of the artist’s death in early March 1631 – whether it was due to sudden illness or to an accident. But he was not stricken down instantaneously: he had time to receive the last sacraments and to dictate his last will and testament, which is lost. In the inventory of his studio, made a few days later, only one tabletop still life was listed. Nearly the same size as the two catalogued here, it was described, like many paintings in the inventory, as only ‘sketched’, suggesting that the artist may have been working on it when he became ill.[7]  The two paintings catalogued here, then, had already been sold when Van der Hamen died. Three other still lifes of this type, with reticulated white cloths, whose level of quality is on a decidedly lower plane, reveal characteristics of the artist’s workshop and suggest that the market for this kind of picture was probably being developed a year of so before his death.[8] Certainly, the Spanish echoes of the innovation in the next decade were strong, particularly in the work of the Valencian Tomas Hiepes (for whom see below).

[1] The two paintings were photographed together by the Servicio de Recuperación de Obras de Arte during the Spanish Civil War, after which they were returned to their owner, whose heirs sold them in Madrid at Sala Durán on 15 October 1996, lots 67 and 68.

[2] It was suggested in 1985 that this painting was inspired by the works of Frans Snyders: see William B. Jordan, Spanish Still Life in the Golden age: 1600-1650, exh. cat., Fort Worth (Kimbell Art Museum), 1985, pp. 108-109.  Hella Robels, Frans Snyders: Stillenben- und Tiermaler (1579-1657), Munich, 1989, p. 263, demonstrated the painting’s derivation from a specific work by Snyders.  See also William B. Jordan and Peter Cherry, Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya, exh. cat., London (The National Gallery), 1995, pp. 48-49.

[3] William B. Jordan, ‘Juan van der Hamen y León: A Madrilenian Still-Life Painter,’ Marsyas, vol. 12 (1964-65), p. 61, fig. 4.

[4] Pamela Hibbs Decoteau, Clara Peeters, Lingen, 1992, p. 20, has speculated that the four still lifes by Peeters in the Museo del Prado, three of which are dated 1611, were a royal commission.  That is doubtful, but they may have entered the royal collection earlier than has been previously thought.

[5] Atmospheric, graded backgrounds first appeared in Van der Hamen’s works around 1626, as in the two still lifes belonging to the Kress Collection (see Jordan, 1985, cat. nos. 16 and 17).  The practice was not uniform thereafter, however.  See, for example, the large stepped still life in the Shickman collection (ibid., cat. no. 21), dated 1629, in which the well-preserved background is uniformly black.

[6] Francisco Pacheco, Arte de la pintura, Seville, 1649, ed. 1956, vol. 2, p. 126.

[7] Jordan 1967, vol. 2, p. 217: ’45.  Una messa de bara y Quarta de largo y de alto tres quartas bosquejada.’  The metric equivalent of these dimensions is: 62.25 x 103.75 cm.

[8] One of these table-top still lifes that reveals the dryer and less sophisticated facture associated with Van der Hamen’s workshop is that formerly in the Casa Torres collection, Madrid (see: Jordan 1967, vol. 2, cat. no. 5, fig. 23); another is in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (see: L’Epoca dels genis, Barcelona, 1988, pp. 156-157, no. 18); the third one, known to me only from a photograph, is in a Spanish private collection.