Formal Analysis: Still Life With Parrots
Jan Davidsz. de Heem, who also fixed his signature as Johannes de Heem and J D de Heem ((IldikÃ³ Ember, Delights for the Senses: Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Paintings from Budapest (Seattle, WA.: University of Washington Press, 1989) xiv)) , worked in Antwerp, Utrecht, and Leiden during the middle decades of the 17th Century, distinguishing himself from his mentor Balthasar van der Ast ((Arie Wallert, Still Lifes: Techniques and Styles: The Examination of Paintings from the Rijksmuseum (Zwolle, The Netherlands.: Waanders Publishers, 1999) 61.)) by pushing the form of the still life to include not just a signature patch
of angled lighting but elements and objects in his reflective collections arcane to the point of being obviously grotesque. Though many of de Heemâ€™s canvases are simply beautiful — Communion Cup and Host, Encircled with a Garland of Fruit and Vanitas — Still Life With Parrots though produced during the same approximate period, does not fall into this category. Rather its disharmonious florid colors, strategically chaotic placement of objects, and zoological inaccuracies create tensions and puzzles which are depthlessly fascinating.
Still Life With Parrots is an oil painting measuring approximately five feet high and four feet across — enormous, particularly by the standards of its date of creation sometime in the latter half of the 1640s.
In another break with his habit of observing strict and straight diagonal composition lines, Parrots is filled with jagged, broken planes and difficult, harsh contours, this despite the presence of many objects — oysters, plums, lemons — with rounded, convex surfaces unto themselves. Several objects — a extraordinarily large gold and silver tazza, a conch shell, and a macaw are presented in unrealistic perspectival distance, competing for dominance. The single level surface shown is a horizontal tabletop splitting the canvas in its lower third, but only a single, flat, right-angle of the table is shown at the left of the painting, the rest of the furniture shrouded in a cloth.
Though logic indicates the opening at the rear of the painting in which the sky, though cloudy, should offer a source of light, the painting is lighted from both the viewer’s perspective from outside the image and from the left. Nonetheless this cool, bluish light casts only short shadows on this interior scene. In the forefront of the painting, one leaf shadows the foliage immediately below it though slightly to the right; a cassava melon on the table and the folds of the table cloth reinforce this impression of a chilly early afternoon. Still Life With Parrots does feature some strong diagonal lines — a yardstick would show the alignment the macawâ€™s beak, the lobsterâ€™s carapace, and the outer edge of the conch shell, but there are also jutting verticals: the tazza and the macaw, a partially obscured column, and a wooden, silver-topped torchiere. Despite these linear conventions the components of the still life collection are haphazard, overlapping, almost tornado-like, emanating from the conch shell in the lower right hand corner, tearing up through the fruits, shellfish, and platters to the macaw.
The table, from what is visible, appears sturdy but rough-hewn of unpolished wood with an ample, stable base. The crumpled tablecloth is of a fine fabric, rendered in red lake with russet hues and embroidered with gold thread or filament. The table is cluttered with abundance. An embossed silver wine pitcher sits at the back of the table beside a blue box with a swatch of wide, gold ribbon, upon which rest a half-filled wine goblet and a cooked lobster. The ornate gold and silver tazza, which would have to be more than two feet tall, follows to the right, then another more-drained goblet. In front of the pitcher is a silver salt cylinder and a pepper dish.
On stacks of silver plates rest halved oysters. Behind them are bunches of red and white grapes, oranges, peaches, and plums. A split pomegranate and the melon, sectioned, are on the edge of the tablecloth to the right of the canvas. In the lower right portion of the painting — in front of the table from the viewerâ€™s perspective — two unnaturally large conch shells and two flower bulbs, still attached to withering leaves, rest. Sprigs of dark green but dry-looking herb leaves rendered in darkly mottled greenish-grey paint fall in front of the center of the tablecloth and upon its right surface. A static butterfly rests on the handle of the pitcher while another butterfly and a grasshopper are perched vertically on the foliage near the bottom of the canvas.
Appearing to clutch the handle of the wine dispenser is a green and red macaw and above and to its right is a smaller African grey parrot on a conventional perch swing. The parrot holds an indeterminate object –a biscuit? — in its beak. The macaw is quite a different shade of red than the tablecloth, the latter likely colored with a vermilion compound made from mercury ((Wallert, 17.) . The macawâ€™s form is parrot is bound in a red lake glaze, perhaps from the root of a perennial madder whose alzarin compound would have given the birdâ€™s feathers its cooler violet hues ((Wallert, 18.)) . (The other scarlet creature in Parrots, a gigantic boiled lobster, is also of interest. Though lobsters were routine caught in the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands, monstrous mature specimens such as the one in the painting were rare and found hundreds of miles offshore, making this crustacean an very expensive, showy delicacy in the 17th Century.) Facing the macaw, and consuming a full quarter of the canvas, is a black curtain unfurling from the left, creating another dramatic diagonal plane. The curtainâ€™s folds are visible on the left, but the fabric recedes into total lightlessness in the upper and extreme right of the painting. The curtain partially reveals a column in the center of the canvas but exterior and to the rear of the sceneâ€™s main (non)activity, and shows, in the upper left quarter the space, a cloudy, threatening sky as well as a tassel that may or may not be part of the curtain. In the lower left corner of the painting, in the space that would be beneath the table, is a large, empty, leaded-glass jar and a woven basket, bottom facing out, on its end.
In consideration of aesthetics, this painting has found a pleasing and appropriate home at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. The Italianate structure and adjacent mansion is home to a collection of oversized, fantastical sculptural reproductions and is on the shore of Sarasota Bay. Viewing Still Life with Parrots in the ornate gallery, its dark clouds could be massing over the bay, its visible column a part of the museumâ€™s supporting colonnades.
Though modern scholars such as Eric J. Sluijter suggest caution when imbuing paintings of the Dutch Golden Age with specific agendas in terms of signified iconographic meanings, it is difficult not to see a bit of figurative as well as literal darkness in this de Heem work.
In addition to prospectively imparting a symbolic definition to the assembly of animals and objects, the organization of these subjects is disturbing in a manner that cannot have been lost on its intended original audience. The plates of food are stacked willy-nilly, overflowing with oysters and shrimps, some of the shellfish scattered on the tablecloth. The tablecloth is ruched and rumpled, exposing the wooden table. The salt cellar is turned on its side.
Of particular interest are the birds. The macaw displays a posture â€“ its neck crooked nearly in an â€œLâ€ shape â€“ that is unnatural to these large South American birds ((Scott D. Westrem, â€œReview: [Untitled],â€ Speculum, Vol. 68, No. 3 (July, 1993), Reviewed Work(s): Imagining the New World: Columbian Iconography. by Irma B. Jaffe, Gianni Eugenio Viola, Franca Rovigatti;The Age of the Marvelous by Joy Kenseth pp. 812-816)) . Additionally the macaw is rendered with very loose, large brush strokes, the right wing seeming to be a single wash of glaze. The African grey parrot, on the other hand, is depicted in great detail, with stiff, short, monochromatic feathers detailed practically to the filaments of the quills.
The parrots raise many questions about this painting. It seems likely both birds were stuffed and lifeless and the time of their immortalization. Is this macaw the same model de Heem used in another work, Large Still Life With Parrot? Both these species are known today for their longevity, with some African greys reaching ages of more than 80 years. Did de Heem know this about the birds, and did that knowledge play some part in his intended meaning? What is the grey parrot holding in its beak? The object, which looks like a cross between a fortune cookie and the skull of a similar-sized bird, is roughly suggested and does not correspond to any of the food or accouterments on the table. The butterflies and grasshopper, on the other hand, are in a correct aspect ratio to their resting spots, though they, too appear a bit lifeless. De Heemâ€™s master, Van der Ast painted a similar grouping of insects in his Still Life With Flowers ((Wallert, 57.)) , so perhaps their deployment is a nod to the senior painter.
So is Still Life With Parrots a routine, if outsize, still life with a few arcane tweaks from de Heem, or an outright vanitas castigating a wealthy but wasteful and slovenly household?
MariÃ«t Westermann, director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, addresses exactly this matter in a passage on Willem Kalf in consideration of his oeuvre in general and the 1669 painting Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar in particular ((MariÃ«t Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press) 118.)) : â€œLike many still lifes, Kalfâ€™s manifests its interest in transience also in its pictorial structure. The goods are placed precariously, visibly touched by human hand … this disorder suggests reality.â€ De Heemâ€™s work predated the Kalf canvas by approximately 25 years and the artistsâ€™ styles differ as greatly as the genre allows, but surely the type of disorder by design in both the works suggests a sort of convention or visual shorthand.
Westermann continues: â€œKalfâ€™s type of compromise, between cornucopia and vanitas motif is paradigmatic for the Dutch mentality of the seventeenth century, which reveled in prosperity yet was anxious about the moral consequences of wealth; a constellation of beliefs that celebrated Dutch enterprise but obsessively acknowledge its independence on Godâ€™s benevolence.â€
Westermann suggests that the Netherlandish audience for paintings such as Kalfâ€™s and de Heemâ€™s were for the most part well-educated and thoughtful as well as materially comfortable, accustomed to being challenged and somewhat discomfited by artworks and that such paintings ((Westermann, 118) â€œforced viewers to assess the propriety of each scene for themselves.â€
De Heem lived and worked in Utrecht and Leiden, but his home was Antwerp and it was there he began his career and eventually returned to complete it, practicing an slowly evolving body of still life genre paintings. Still Life with Parrots is not his masterwork, and de Heem is eclipsed in history by Dutch painters whose work or biographies, at least at present, are regarded as meatier or juicier. Yet this canvas is delicious in its own way, revealing levels of complexity upon repeated and concentrated viewings.
Spectrographic analysis ((Wallert, 19)) . of van der Ast paintings reveal the imprimatura used to coat canvases as a ground was sometimes left as a sort of â€œpaint by numbersâ€ background for the paintings themselves and that subsequently chemical- and age-induced fading has occurred in some cases. This phenomenon may account for one of Parrotsâ€™ most charming elements which places it in both de Heemâ€™s world and ours and is a reminder, as much as any of the objects contained in its frame, of both the passage and transience of time. In the middle of the left hand side of the painting, a trellis and vine appear only faintly against a patch of pale background, disappearing slowly from the scene of a long ago banquet that likely never happened.
Ember, IldikÃ³. 1989. Delights for the Senses: Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Paintings from Budapest Seattle, WA.: University of Washington Press
Rayfield, Susan. 1988. Painting Birds New York, NY.: Watson-Guptill Publications
Wallert, Arie. 1999. Still Lifes: Techniques and Styles: The Examination of Paintings from the Rijksmuseum, Zwolle, The Netherlands.: Waanders Publishers
Westermann, MariÃ«t. 1996. A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press
Westrem, Scott D. â€œReview: [Untitled],â€ Speculum, Vol. 68, No. 3 (July, 1993), pp. 812-816
Reviewed Work(s): Imagining the New World: Columbian Iconography. by Irma B. Jaffe, Gianni Eugenio Viola, Franca Rovigatti; The Age of the Marvelous by Joy Kenseth