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Friday, June 27, 2014

Willem Claeszoon Heda

Breakfast with a Crab, Willem Claeszoon Heda
What did you have for breakfast this morning? I haven't had breakfast yet so I can't answer that. In any case, I'm a "big breakfast person." Nutritionist say that's a good thing; cereal manufacturers call it the most important meal of the day. We just returned not long ago from 42 days on the road touring the west, eating breakfast in a wide range of forms, flavors, and establishments from cheap continental buffets in cheap, anything but continental motels, to lavish spreads such as that served by the Queen Mary, permanently docked at Long Beach, California. Prices ranged from zero to well over thirty dollars. Menus ranged from cold hard-boil eggs to delicate (and delicious) French and Danish pastries. "Gourmet" fare involved waffles you made yourself (as opposed to the frozen kind).
Still-life with Nautilus, 1654, Willem Claeszoon Heda. 
By the 1650s, Heda's palette had warmed somewhat...if not his breakfast palate.  
Food has changed a lot over the centuries, not so much the content as the countenance--what it looks like. When I was a child there was a lot of warm cereal served for breakfast, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Maypo, Coco-wheat, etc. I can't tell you the last time I had a bowl of warm oatmeal (instant) and I came to hate most of the rest of the wallpaper paste derivatives. That was a mere fifty or sixty years ago. Five hundred years ago, judging from the breakfast still-lifes of Dutch painters such as Willem Claeszoon Heda, breakfast would have taken not just a strong appetite but a pretty strong stomach as well. Judging from his Breakfast with a Crab (top, love that title. I've had a few like that) seafood, being a staple in the food chain of the Dutch seafaring country, also extended to the breakfast table. Oysters were also a popular breakfast food. Not a sign of a Pop Tart.

Still-life, 1649, Willem Claeszoon, Heda. The ham seems a bit fatty.
If you've never heard of Willem Heda, don't concern yourself, he was a still-life painter from the great Golden Age of Dutch painting during the 17th-century. The reason you've probably never heard of him is that there were so damned many painters from this period of rampant prosperity in the Netherlands and the other "low countries." Moreover, another reason you've likely never encountered his name is the extreme specialization such a large group of professional artist engendered. At the top of the lot were history painters, followed by portrait painters (like Rembrandt), landscape painters (such as the van Ruisdaels), flower painters (this was Holland, remember) and finally, near the bottom of the hierarchy, came still-life painters. Though uniformly excellent artists, they were looked down upon by the Dutch art world as rather inconsequential due to their mundane subject matter. Even at that the specialization wasn't complete. There were vanitas still life painters (more concerned with still-death than still-life) breakfast painters (including Heda) and even late breakfast painters, presumably what we'd call a "brunch," in which the menu was somewhat broader (as if it could get any broader than crab for breakfast).

Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie, 1631, Willem Claeszoon Heda

Blackberry Pie (detail), the type of realism
Dutch still-life painters gloried in producing.
As is obvious in looking at his paintings, Heda was quite good, one of the best at what he did. Born in 1593, he died around 1682, at almost ninety years of age (though his last dated works came in the 1660s, possibly due to failing eyesight). Eating crab for breakfast must have some health benefits. Judging from the content of his work, half-peeled lemons were common on the Dutch breakfast table (for the seafood, no doubt) as were various baked goods, fruit, olives, and wines. Notice there are no eggs, no milk, no oatmeal, no pancakes, no yogurt, no OJ, no jams nor jellies, though I did see some ham and apparently blackberry pie quite acceptable.

With the death of Willem Heda and those like him, still-life painting declined in popularity for some time until the French painter, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, brought new life to the still-life genre a hundred years later. Again in the 19th-century, as subject matter veered away from foodstuffs toward the other accouterments of daily life, still-life painting once more began to hang on the walls of the well-to-do. With this renewal of interest, came a similar renewal of interest in the work of those from the past who had done it so well, the lowly troupe of Dutch painting specialists, like Heda. We can thank them for so faithfully recording, for the benefit of generations to come, how fortunate we are in having omelets, waffles, bacon, corn flakes, and croissants served today on our breakfast tables. Mm...making me hungry.

Still-life with Lobster, Willem Claeszoon Heda. Lobster for breakfast anyone?

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