Van der Hamen y León, Juan

Madrid 1596 - Madrid 1631
Biography & List of works

Meal on a Table: Talavera Plates of Fruit and Meat, a Melon, Bread and a Carafe of White Wine

Meal on a Table: Talavera Plates of Fruit and Meat, a Melon, Bread and a Carafe of White Wine

SOLD

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 68 x 103 cm

Provenance:

Private collection, Spain

This extraordinary still life, unmistakably by Van der Hamen’s hand, is unusual in some respects and quite different from the one catalogued above. The latter -unusual in itself as a subject in the artist’s oeuvre nevertheless relates to his still lifes in niches or on ledges inasmuch as the articles on the table-top were artfully disposed as though intended merely for show, or visual delectation. It is an apatador, or serving table; its damask cloth would probably have hung nearly to the floor. It represents the formal face of courtly hospitality. This much more intimate still life depicts a complete meal on a table, and it is a dining table, not a serving table. The white linen cloth is a short one, allowing room for the diner’s legs to extend beneath the top.[1] The chipped Talavera earthenware plates, which occur in quite a few of Van der Hamen’s other still lifes and lend a note of realism, do not denote this as a poor man’s meal. Such plates were common throughout Spanish society; furthermore, fresh fruit was a luxury found mostly on the tables of the affluent. What is unusual about this picture is that the table is laid in a very natural way, as though this meal were about to be consumed. Thus it represents a kind of still life that had not been painted in Spain before, but one that was common in northern Europe.

 

The fact that it is unique in Van der Hamen’s oeuvre suggests that the painting is probably also a very late work, painted just before the artist’s death. It suggests that Van der Hamen was experimenting in a new direction that surely would have resulted in other examples like it, had the artist only lived to realize them. Such a departure from his accustomed mode was not in itself unusual for Van der Hamen, who, five years before, had dramatically left behind the tradition he inherited from Sanchez Cotan by breaking the horizontal stone plinth he had always used as a setting for his still lifes into a stepped configuration, thus freeing himself from the self-imposed symmetry that had often characterised his earlier style. By 1630/31, it seems, he had taken yet another step in the process of developing the possibilities of the still life in Spain by adopting a format common in the North. In so doing, he may have been responding to the taste of his clientele, which included several Flemish nobles residing at the court, as well as Spanish magnates and collectors who had served as administrators of the Spanish Netherlands.

 

Meal-on-a-table still lifes had been painted in the North by such artists as Osias Beert, Georg Flegel, Peter Binoit and others. What distinguishes Van der Hamen’s from theirs, however, is a painterly style that is a pole apart from the enamel-like polish of the Northern works. In undertaking this, his sole example of the genre, Van der Hamen was evidently experimenting in several other ways as well. One can see with the naked eye the pentiment along the left edge of the plate of grapes, peaches and plums, indicating a shift in its placement. The artist also had several alternatives of mind before arriving at the final shape of the table. Originally, the back of the table-top extended all the way from the left edge to the right edge of the canvas, and the tablecloth, with its pattern of folds, descended vertically to the bottom edge of the canvas. Probably in an effort to clarify the nature of this still life, Van der Hamen chose to show the back left corner of the table, extending the black background down over a triangular shaped portion of the white cloth he had already painted.[2] He also chose to show the hem of the tablecloth, clarifying that it is a short one by painting a thin blackish glaze over the white he had already painted to the lower edge. The resulting darkness is a bit greyer, less intense, than that of the background, which keeps the table from seeming to float.

 

The overall tonality of this painting is a bit cooler than most of Van der Hamen’s other still lifes, owing to further evidence of experimentation. Whereas the preparation of the canvas in most of the artist’s still lifes is a rich red earth, in this case the preparation is more complex, composed of yellow mixed with bits of red and black, resulting in a lighter ground that looks like yellow ochre. The background is a uniform layer of carbon black brushed over this ground (similar to that in the large, stepped still life belonging to Herman and Lila Shickman, dated 1629).[3]  The white tablecloth was painted entirely before the objects depicted on top of it; thus, they are effectively painted on a white ground rather than a red one (unlike the picture catalogued above).

 

Even though the arrangement of the objects in this still life is a new one for Van der Hamen, the nature of the objects depicted and the way they are painted are quite typical of his usual repertory. The Talavera plate of what looks like boiled ham hock (lacón) calls to mind the small, undated still life in the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (Inv. no.3864), in which a plate of bacon is depicted with a meat pie, a knife and a lidded glass drinking vessel à la façon de Venise. And the punctilious definition of the fly on the tablecloth recalls those shown on the carafe of liquid in Still Life with Sweet; and Glassware, in the Museo del Prado (Fig. 5.1).

 

Had this still life been painted earlier in Van der Hamen’s development, there would probably have been a reflection of it in his studio output. Since there is no other quite like it, it seems most likely that it was painted in the final months of his life, as was the serving table catalogued above.

 

[1] For a view of a prosperous gentleman dining at such a table, see Georg Flegel’s Double Portrait of an Elderly Couple in the exhibition catalogue Georg Flegel (1566-1638). Stilleben, Stuttgart, 1993, cat. no. 8.

[2] In the painting’s recent cleaning, overpainting applied in this century or the last was removed which distorted both the left and right edges of the table-top.

[3] See Jordan and Cherry 1995, cat. no. 15.