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Pieter Claesz. (Berchem 1597/1598-1661 Haarlem), ‘A ham, a roll and a herring on pewter platters, with a pewter jug, glass of beer, a knife and a mustard pot on a partly draped table’, signed in monogram and dated ‘PC / 1648’ (center left), oil on oak panel, 20 3/8 x 27½ in. (51.8 x 70 cm.). Estimate $120,000 – $160,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

Provenance: Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 2008, lot 23 (£91,250)

Notes: Pieter Claesz. was one of the principal still-life painters in 17th-century Haarlem, along with his contemporary, Willem Claesz. Heda. Though the artist initially favored a vivid palette in the 1620s, he became renowned for the monochromatic still lifes characteristic of his mature period during the 1640s, like the present work, which is monogrammed and dated 1648. In contrast to the exuberant display of colors in his earlier work, the later works reveal a more subtle range of neutral tones restricted to earthy browns, warm golds, and olive greens, similar the palettes of the tonal landscapes also popular among contemporary Haarlem painters. As these colors could be applied directly onto a prepared panel or canvas and did not require the tedious application of glazes, Claesz. was able to increase productivity and meet the demand of the growing mercantile class that could increasingly afford to purchase art. The artist’s change in palette may also, in part, have been a reaction to the message of moderation preached by contemporary ministers, who cautioned against lavishness and excess.

Claesz.’ masterly technical skill is highlighted by the diverse textures in the present picture: the cool metals and delicate porcelain contrast sharply with the soft folds of the tablecloth and the feathery strokes used to give the bread roll its rough-looking crust. The ruffled tablecloth and overlapping objects upon it create the sense that the scene is not necessarily posed, but could represent a real moment in time (even if the viewer knows it has been staged). This typically Baroque aesthetic, first introduced to the genre of still-life painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem around 1635, is underscored by the dynamically painted drapery of the fabric as well as the strong diagonal running through the composition from the open pewter jug in the upper left to the herring in the lower right.

Though it may appear to be set for a typical 17th-century Dutch meal, the table actually features an elaborate arrangement of delicacies deliberately chosen for their formal qualities and status as costly luxuries. In addition to a ham on a pewter plate, which occupies the center of the feast, the table also displays white bread, or herenbrood, which, as opposed to its less costly counterpart semelbrood (rye-kernel black bread) would have been obviously upper-class fare. The elegant Chinese porcelain dish and knife inlaid with mother-of-pearl would have also identified this as a meal to be taken in a wealthy home.

But the specific objects may also carry a deeper significance: along with the wine, the bread may allude to the Sacrament, encouraging the viewer to contemplate the temporality of life and earthly possessions. The cracked walnut, sometimes a vanitas symbol, may have underscored such an interpretation. Meanwhile, the bread and beer would have also been recognized as local Netherlandish products, just as the glass roemer, a typical drinking goblet found in most homes, is shown with its distinctive exterior embellished with bits of raised glass, which served as grips for greasy fingers during a time when forks were not yet used. Similarly, the sliced herring, ready to be eaten, would have been recognized as the product on which the Dutch trading companies were founded, and may have filled a contemporary viewer with a sense of patriotic pride.

Fred G. Meijer of the RKD in The Hague has endorsed the attribution to Pieter Claesz. on the basis of photographs, and Dr. M. Brunner-Bulst compares the present painting to three other still-life pictures by Claesz., two of which date to 1647 and one of which dates to 1650. She argues that these works, along with the present picture, form a cohesive group in which the themes treated and objects represented are similar, but the composition is in each occasion individual and conceived anew (see M. Brunner-Bulst, op. cit., nos. 156, 157, 186).

Christie’s. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS PART I, 28 January 2015,New York, Rockefeller Plaza