PHOTOGRAPHY HANS FONK | TEXT RUUD VAN DER NEUT

Still lifes are one of the favourite genres in the canon of 17th-century Dutch painting. In the Frans Hals Museum in the Dutch city of Haarlem several such characteristic works can be admired. From subdued still lifes depicting a simple meal to ostentatious banquets with numerous courses and the costliest attributes, dishes and beverages. In addition, there is a richly laid ‘real life’ table, completely in style and historically correct.

Objekt contributing writer, Ruud van der Neut, was commissioned by the Frans Hals Museum for the concept, styling and sourcing of this festive fare, to be designed down the to smallest detail in the spirit of the Golden Age. He used authentic 17th-century pewter plates,  tankards, lifelike artificial fruit, sausages and cheeses, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, oysters and mussels. This three-dimensional ‘still life’ is prominently displayed in the Schutterszaal (Gallery of the Civic Guard), immediately in front of the painting which was a source of inspiration for the display – ‘The banquet of the officers of the St. George Civic Guard’.

The Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, was recently thoroughly renovated and redecorated, meaning that the famous collection of paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries can now be displayed to full advantage in this historic group of buildings. The museum, which is named after one of the most celebrated of Dutch 17th-century painters, also presents brilliantly executed portraits and depictions of banquets for the civic guard by Frans Hals, as well as works by contemporaries and colleagues like Jan Steen, Floris Gerritsz van Schooten, Pieter Claesz, Dirck Hals and Willem Kalf.

One of the favourite genres in Golden Age painting is, unquestionably, the atmospheric still life in which such comestibles as fish, game and poultry, fruit, bread, cheeses, glasses and dinnerware are the protagonists. Invariably so realistically portrayed that they are not only pleasing to perceive, but also tempting to the palate.

Pieter Claesz (1596-1660) was the first artist to depict everyday items like a pewter plate, crockery, a herring or some oysters, and a bread roll so skilfully that they radiate an enchanting beauty. The glass, cup and pewter plate reflect the light, but one another’s lustre as well.  The greenish roemers, filled with wine or beer,  gleam in the soft light. His are representations of simple meals, subtly executed in an almost monochrome palette of greys, greens and browns.

Around 1640 in Claesz’s oeuvre restrained still lifes were to make way for ‘richer’ compositions in more exuberant colours. They feature costly silver or gilt tazzas,  lidded goblets, cutlery,  drinking cups and Venetian glasses, blue-and-white decorated Chinese porcelain, exotic shells, fruit, table runners in gold brocade, and snow-white damask. In many of the paintings there is a lemon with its peel decoratively cut as a spiral, combined with a greenish roemer filled with white wine. The prosperity of the Golden Age is reflected in the copious repast on the table.

The whole array of products served up at festive banquets is also prominent in paintings by 17th-century artists like Floris van Dijck, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem Claesz Heda and Abraham van Beyeren – all artists who specialised in still lifes highlighting food and drink.

Such ‘showpiece’ or ‘banquet style’ still lifes also give a good idea of what was found on the table apart from the various dishes, at feasts and functions: costly cutlery, various kinds of glasses, all manner of ornate attributes and a variety of dinnerware. Many a sumptuously laid table would feature an enormous pie, filled with meat and spices and decorated with wings, feathers and the head of a turkey, peacock or swan – apparently the main dish. The everyday fare of farmers and simple manual workers may have consisted of culinarily indefinable pottages, coarse black bread, watery beer and occasionally a little meat, but the affluent merchants and burghers clearly had far a more varied menu. Festive banquets comprising three or four served courses, each of which might consist of dozens of different dishes. And an elaborate banquet could last for several days.

Any one course might comprise various soups made from chicken (possibly pickled), other poultry or meat, seasoned with pepper and oriental spices. Apart from the spectacularly decorated pies, numerous dishes would be served made up of veal and mutton, rabbit, hare, partridge and pheasant, wild game, wild duck and pigeon, smaller birds including finch and lark. Fish was also on the menu, admittedly primarily stock fish (dried), as well as the occasional fresh saltwater and freshwater fish, oysters, mussels, shrimps, lobster and crab. Fresh saltwater fish was considered the height of luxury and was only available in places near the coast. Lettuce, vegetables and fruits were grown in greenhouses and orangeries. Moreover, various products were imported from more southerly climes: olives, artichokes, parsnips, lemons, oranges, peaches and pomegranates. Hothouse cultivated vines supplied white and black grapes, and plums, apples, pears and cherries were grown in orchards. The local kitchen garden provided a small variety of vegetables, as well as strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries and blackberries. Accordingly, ‘home-grown’ fruit and vegetables were seasonal and almost everything was cooked to a pulp, partially for preserving. Biscuits, sorbets and other sweetmeats made with sugar, syrup, honey and almonds did not yet conclude the festive repast. No indeed: white bread and butter and a selection of cheeses from cow, sheep or goat milk finally ended the meal that had comprised dozens of dishes.

Obviously, drinks flowed abundantly during the meal. White wine (from the Rhine and Mosel), red Spanish and French wine (from Bordeaux) and ‘heavy’ beer of better quality than what the ‘common’ people drank was poured from pewter or silver pitchers. Beer was an essential part of the daily diet, drunk by young and old alike. That watery beer – with a low percentage of alcohol – was served at breakfast, and with the midday and the evening meals. Not primarily for its taste but for health reasons, as the drinking of contaminated surface water was not without it hazards.

Wine and beer were invariably drunk from pale-green roemers and ‘berkenmeyer’ glasses: glasses with a wide, conical bowl on a foot that was decorated until midway the stem with glass bosses. The decorations were intended to give greasy hands a better grip on the glass, as fingers were the main eating utensils. Admittedly every guest brought his own knife, but it was chiefly used to cut the food into manageable pieces or else to skewer it. Forks were used sporadically and spoons were not yet part of the personal set of eating implements.

Plates, tankards, beakers and serving platters were generally made of pewter; only the elite used expensive Chinese porcelain dishes from the Wanli period (early 1600s) and silver or gilt goblets, from which toasts were drunk. Such drinking vessels would be filled with wine and passed round the table during a meal. The Frans Hals Museum has in its collection a splendid, silver ceremonial goblet made in 1604 by the Utrecht silversmith, Ernst Jansz van Vianen. The city of Haarlem has owned this goblet of the guild of St. Martin since the 17th century and it also features in a still life that Pieter Claesz painted in 1641.

It proved to be far from simple to deck out the lavish, ornate table in period style. True, the museum had four 17th-century Renaissance oak tables in its collection, but not one was large enough for the purpose: to create a spectacular, ostentatious dinner table, several metres in width.  The problem was solved thanks to the generous loan of a table from the Trustees’ room of the Vrouwe- en Anthonie Gasthuis almshouse in Haarlem. The 17th-century twist-turned chairs round the loaned table come from Haarlem’s City Hall, the two other chairs, upholstered in gold-coloured leather, stood elsewhere in the museum. The next step was the hunt for fitting fabrics for the moss-green cloth, the gold brocade runner, black velvet for the cloaks, and red and cream-coloured satin for the sashes, as were worn by the Civic Guard in those days. The 17th-century damask napkins were loaned by a private collector. And then the first problems arose.

During its two-year renovation, the museum had had to empty all its storerooms, because asbestos had been found in the ceilings and walls. Ten thousand items had to be stored elsewhere and now proved inaccessible. Admittedly photos had been taken of everything before it was packed away, but what was being kept where? Fortunately a few large Chinese porcelain charger plates from around 1600 could be traced to the temporary store, and so were two pewter serving platters. Such pieces are essential in the arrangement, since they nearly always have a prominent place in the ostentatious still life. Fortunately the museum still had its extremely rare large pewter jugs, which were needed for the display. Period pewter plates, spoons and dishes were hunted down. But, as the ostentatious buffet was to be presented ‘accessibly’ in the Schutterszaal gallery, there were restrictions to which (highly) valuable items could be placed on the table. However, the museum did own a copy of the famous St. Martin’s guild goblet in silver plate, made around 1880 in Berlin, so an ceremonial goblet was available.  Alternatives had to be found for the glassware on the table. Recent copies of roemers and berkenmeyers, made in the Czech Republic, provided a solution, since a single original berkenmeyer glass costs at least € 2,000, and is too fragile and valuable to be used in such a table setting.

The knives used on the table are an another matter altogether. The last thing you must do is a place sharp object, ‘unanchored’, anywhere near valuable paintings like those of the civic guard group portraits. In the past,  a deranged person has been known to wilfully damage a painting in a museum. However, some 17th-century ivory knife handles (excavated in an archaeological dig) were given cardboard blades with leaf silver applied, and proved indistinguishable from real antique knives. Problem solved.

But more was to follow: the comestibles on the table had to keep for years, yet appear real. Various types of artificial fruit made in plaster or beeswax and collected over the years (once used for study purposes) were a godsend, and an antique wicker basket was purchased from an antique shop in France. It is identical to those depicted in still lifes and has been filled with fruit. Antique shop window models of cheeses and sausages also found their way to the table. An artisan baker produced exact copies of the white loaves depicted in 17th-century paintings, from reproductions of dozens of still lifes. He needed to add large quantities of salt to the dough for preservation; also extra yeast to make it rise. The empty oyster and mussel shells were supplied by the Haarlem restaurant, Truffels. Next the filling: after endless experiments,  deceptively realistic oyster and mussel ‘meat’ was shaped from plastic and subtly coloured with oil paint and glossy varnish. The finishing touch was a paper cone made from a page out of a 17th-century almanac – it contains peppercorns, just like in the paintings.

The result is a true-to-life culinary homage to the Golden Age which is likely to be on display at the museum until mid-2014 – flanked by Civic Guard paintings by Frans Hals.