Jan Davidsz de Heem
(Utrecht 1606 - Antwerp 1684)
Still Life with Lemons, Pomegranates and Grapes on a Table
Signed and dated 1654, upper right
Oil on Canvas
48 x 63.5 cm.
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Lush still lifes of fruit such as this one must have inspired the painter and author, Joachim von Sandrart, to conclude in 1675 that Jan Davidsz. de Heem had moved to Antwerp because “there one could have rare fruit of all kinds and sizes, plums, peaches, cherries, oranges, lemons, grapes, and others in finer condition and state of ripeness to portray from life”. However, it was only during the second half of the 1640s, more than a decade after his move to Antwerp, that De Heem actually began to demonstrate a vivid interest in fruits and flowers and to create still lifes of the kind shown here. In his earlier works, objects such as silver tazzas, silver-gilt cups and covers, or Chinese porcelain bowls tend to hold the most prominent positions. Others are dominated by a large, bright red lobster. The first example of a painting in which fruit is the primary subject can be dated to 1649, and is in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe (inv. no. 362).
During the first half of the 1650s in particular, Jan Davidsz. de Heem dated many of his still lifes, which allows us to follow his development closely. Throughout his career de Heem constantly tried new approaches to composition, choice of still-life subjects, and the rendering of details. He continuously experimented with the use of glazes, loose and tight brushwork, impasto and smoothness, light and colours. The painting shown here is the only dated example from 1654 known at present, but it fits perfectly in between the nine known dated paintings from 1653 and the only known dated example from 1655, a large outdoor still life in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (inv. no. 1107). De Heem’s use of forceful brushwork, combined with multiple fine glazes, is at its height here. The glazes create an impression of the translucency of the fruit, particularly on the white grapes. De Heem’s mastery of rendering and juxtaposing different textures is fully evident in this still life. For instance, the rigid skin of the pomegranate contrasts with the brilliant grapes and the heavy, soft table cloth, while the lemon, with its thickly painted peel, stands out against the hard, shiny metal of the pewter plate. Such features are handled in much the same manner in his famous large still life with a macaw in the collection of the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna (inv. no. 612), which must date from the same year.
It is apparent that other artists appreciated this still life by de Heem, as there are several copies of it that we know of. In a painting attributed to the French painter François Habert, who was active around the middle of the seventeenth century, the artist included de Heem’s pomegranate and the grapes surrounding it in a still-life composition of his own. This points to the possibility that de Heem sold the painting to a French client and that it remained in the country until it reappeared in a Paris auction of 1909.
Jan Davidsz. de Heem is one of the most important, and probably the most influential, of seventeenth-century Netherlandish still-life painters. He was born in Utrecht into a family of Flemish descent in 1606. In 1626 he moved to Leiden, where his career as a painter began. He stayed there until 1631, and may subsequently have spent a few years in Amsterdam. By early 1636, he had settled in Antwerp, where he became very successful, painting still lifes of various kinds. After his move to Antwerp, his still lifes manifest the ideal amalgam of Dutch fascination with detail and Flemish baroque. During the second half of the 1650s, de Heem probably spent periods of time back in his native city of Utrecht, where he appears to have re-settled in the early 1660s. In 1672, after the Dutch economy had collapsed, the artist moved back to Antwerp, where he died some twelve years later. Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s productivity appears to have dwindled during the last decade of his life. A last dated work is known from 1675, after which de Heem appears to have produced only a few paintings.
Galerie Georges Petit, 6 May 1909, Paris, Mme de Vermeulen Collection.