CLAESZ., Pieter
(b. ca. 1597, Steinfurt, d. 1661, Haarlem)


Oil on wood, 60 x 84 cm
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

The work of the Dutch still-life painters who appear around 1620 corresponds to the tonal trend of the landscapists of van Goyen's generation. Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda, popularizers of the breakfast piece, are the principal representatives of this phase. Claesz, the father of the landscapist Nicolaes Berchem, was born at Berchem (probably the village near Antwerp). Heda's origins are obscure. Both were primarily active at Haarlem and underwent similar stylistic developments.

Their early works show the influence of the older still-life painters, but they soon limited themselves to the description of a simple meal set near the corner of a table - some bread and cheese, a herring on a pewter dish, a glass of beer or wine, perhaps a silvery pewter vessel, and a white crumpled tablecloth - just enough to suggest a light breakfast or snack. These objects, which always look as if they had been touched by someone who is still close by, are no longer treated as isolated entities: they are grouped together, forming masses along a single diagonal axis. But more important, Pieter Claesz and Heda reacted to the comprehensive forces of light and atmosphere which envelop us and the things with which we live, and they found means to express their reactions to these forces as accurately, immediately, and intensely as possible. As a result, they seem to animate their simple subjects. With a new pictorial mode, they achieve a more dynamic spatial and compositional treatment.

The foreground of their unpretentious arrangements becomes spacious, and there is clear recession. Instead of vivid local colours, monochromatic harmonies with sensitive contrasts of valeurs of low intensity are favoured, without, however, a loss of the earlier regard for textural differentiation. From the point of view of composition and of colouristic, tonal, and spatial treatment the perfectly balanced still-lifes by Claesz and Heda are among the most satisfying Dutch paintings made during the century.

Claesz has a more vigorous touch than Heda. He was also a man of simpler tastes. Heda depicts oysters more frequently than herrings, and after 1640 his compositions became larger, richer, and more decorative. To obtain a more monumental effect, during his maturity Heda often abandons the traditional horizontal format for a vertical one. Ornate silver vessels and costly 'façon de Venise' glasses, at the time blown in the Netherlands as well as Venice, intensify the contrasts of valeurs, and touches of colour provided by the pink of sliced hams and ripe fruit are combined with an increased chiaroscuro.