This catalogue was published for the exhibition that celebrated the 350th anniversary (1652-2002) of the founding of Beverwijck, the original Dutch settlement that became present-day Albany, New York. A fine collection of pictures did justice to the occasion. The catalogue opens with a brief but informative and evocative essay on ‘The Founding of Beverwijck, 1652’ by the Director of the New Netherland Project, Charles T. Gehring. This is followed by essays on the meaning and context of Dutch still-life painting, bringing together perspectives from art, cultural and culinary history.
In ‘A Moveable Feast: The American Appetite for Netherlandish Genre and Still-Life Paintings,’ art historian Nancy Minty adds an amusing historical gloss to the persistent question of the role of morality (and immorality) in Dutch art with her observation that ‘(A)gain and again, our nineteenth-century critics were at pains to reconcile the evident weakness of Americans for distasteful subject matter to the allegedly edifying properties of fine art.’ (p.6) It was a taste clearly shared (she might add) by their seventeenth-century Dutch predecessors; and (like their French and English predecessors, as she observes) it fixed on ‘the immaculate brushwork of the bawdy scenes as their redeeming virtue.’
In ‘Dutch Paintings in the Seventeenth Century,’ Professor Barnes provides a concise introduction to the context of period representations of food and drink. When it comes to summarizing the debates over the status of meaning in Dutch art, however, her reductive approach shows its limits. She is right to exhort viewers to savor these pictures and contemplate their own interpretations as to meaning, but she omits to mention the alternative of multivalency: that these works can embody and encompass many dimensions of meaning and significance at once.
In ‘Dutch Foodways: An American Connection,’ food historian Peter Rose reviews Dutch culinary history from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, focusing on the latter, characterizing daily meals, contrasting the diet of the poor and working class with that of the wealthier middle and upper classes, and exploring food and drink in New Netherland as well.
The collaborative approach to catalogue entries yields a nice balance between the precise descriptions and art historical commentary of Barnes and the related food and recipe notes of Rose, who also authored the little cookbook which accompanies the volume. This delightful bonus offers historical recipes enriched with helpful practical tips that even guide the reader through cooking certain recipes in the fireplace. I have tested the ‘salmon in thickened pepper sauce’ and ‘braised green beans,’ and my dinner party commended them both! (On the other hand, I will warn that the ‘candied orange peels’ are a meticulous labor of love, so eat them promptly – if stored in air-tight Tupperware, they mold, but if allowed to dry out, they become tooth-breakers.)
Barnes’s contributions to each catalogue entry begin with detailed and perceptive formal analyses, followed by acknowledgment of the litany of possible symbolic interpretations and concluding by recognizing the technical virtuosity of the artist. This formula echoes in its repetitive nature certain familiar compositional schemata of the still-life pictures she discusses, but likewise is appropriately balanced in its treatment.
One regrettable omission is the silence regarding conservation issues – even those as obvious as in Jan de Bondt’s Fish Market with Two Figures (cat.11, p.50-51), where conspicuous white discolorations on the girl’s face demand some technical explanation. Similarly, either paint loss from overcleaning or extremely cursory application seems perhaps to mark the spotty backgrounds of cat.10 (p. 48-9) by Maerten Boelema ‘de Stomme’ and cat.19 (p.66-7) by Pieter Claesz, both of which reveal substantial areas of yellowish-brown underpaint. Exhibitions are such fortuitous opportunities for these sorts of observations, one misses their address here.
A more serious omission throughout the catalogue is the lack of appropriate footnoting to identify specific citations in primary sources or secondary sources where such specific citations can be found. Several elements of Rose’s essay parallel conclusions found in the 1999 Rijksmuseum and Cleveland catalogue Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720, listed in the bibliography, but without notes to indicate points of reference. Similarly, Rose notes various dietary recommendations from Johan van Beverwijck’s influential Schat der Gesontheyt without citing the specific passage in Van Beverwijk or relevant secondary analyses (e.g., for her reference to using ‘salt to open the stomach and cheese to close it’, her p. 122, she might have cited the more detailed discussion in the 1999 catalogue, p. 75. See also my Life and Still Life: A Cultural Inquiry into 17th-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting, UMI 1995, not listed in the bibliography). The lack of specific citations limits the usefulness of this catalogue for scholarly purposes; even Van Beverwyck himself is omitted from the bibliography, despite the fact that the Dordrecht physician’s Schat der Gesontheyt, with its extensive section ‘On Food and Drink,’ was republished many times in the seventeenth century and formed a substantial source for the highly derivative text of his Amsterdam colleague Stephanus Blankaart, which is listed here.
In her interpretative descriptions, Rose occasionally implies certainty where none exists, doing no service to earnest readers who may mistake arbitrary supposition as fact. Regarding Pieter de Hooch’s The Fireside (cat. 27), she states matter-of-factly that ‘ the apples will be added to a custard with fresh breadcrumbs and ginger, as described in the recipe below’ (pp. 82-83). This could just as well be the pie-like ‘ appel-taert’ for which she also provides a recipe; all she needs to add is ‘ perhaps.’ Barnes, too occasionally takes interpretations too far, reverting to the presumption of moralizing vanitas symbolism. Her analysis of the Kalf Still Life of Metal Plates with Fruit and Other Elements (cat. 28) assigns unequivocal dictionary-like interpretations to a long list of items, but if the ‘bitter olives’ and ‘acidic pomegranate’ decidedly ‘symbolize the brevity of life,’ then why is the lemon peel merely one of the elements that ‘appear in many of his pictures’ (pp. 84-85)? Eddy de Jongh himself cautioned against the piecemeal interpretation of fragments of symbolism in the absence of overt determiners (such as the omnia vanitas inscription or the semantically charged skull). The judicious reader will always remember to take such pronouncements with the proverbial grain of salt.
Julie Berger Hochstrasser
The University of Iowa