HEEM, Jan Davidsz. de
(b. 1606, Utrecht, d. 1684, Antwerpen)

A Table of Desserts

Oil on canvas, 149 x 203 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jan Davidsz de Heem, who was to win an international reputation as one of the greatest European still-life painters, also spent time in Leiden. The most interesting works he painted during his stay there from the mid-twenties to the early thirties are vanitas still-lifes, mainly comprising piles of old, well-used books that signal the vanity of the scholarly life.

In about 1635 he moved to Antwerp and in 1637 became a citizen of the city. Apart from some trips to Utrecht, his native city, he remained active in Antwerp for two decades and then is registered there as a non-resident citizen. His long stay in Antwerp earns him a place in the history of Flemish as well as Dutch art. By the late 1660s de Heem settled in Utrecht where he lived until 1672, the disastrous year that Louis XIV's armies invaded the Netherlands. Then he returned to Antwerp where he was active until his death. According to Sandrart (1675) he left Utrecht for Antwerp because 'there one could have rare fruit of all kinds, large plums, peaches, cherries, oranges, lemons, grapes, and others in finer condition and state of ripeness to draw from life ...' The reason Sandrart offers for his move can be questioned. Is it not possible that de Heem fled to Antwerp to avoid living under the invading French troops?

It was during his first years in Antwerp that de Heem found his special province. There he painted his famous flower pieces which occasionally have overt moralizing messages. In Antwerp he made contact with the Flemish Jesuit Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), who, after Jan Brueghel, was the most accomplished south Netherlandish flower painter of the century. Seghers depicted bouquets but his speciality was painting garlands encircling a cartouche with a religious scene, a sculptural image, or a portrait, frequently painted by another artist. De Heem adapted Seghers's cartouche motif and painted hanging garlands as well. The individual blooms in these works are as colourful and as accurately portrayed as Bosschaert's, but they are done with a freer brush, introduce chiaroscuro effects, and have asymmetrical arrangements. The host of de Heem's followers and later flower painters use similar pictorial devices.

In Antwerp de Heem also began to paint his celebrated abundant displays on carpet-covered tables piled high with ornate silver platters and baskets of huge, expensive fruit, and glistening lobsters. These works are usually embellished with exquisite trappings, precious metal vessels, and delicate glassware. An outstanding very large, early one at the Louvre (this picture) was in the collection of Louis XIV before 1683. The Dutch call lavish still-lifes of this type 'pronk stilleven' (pronk means sumptuous or ostentatious). The term is traditionally used to categorize overt displays of magnificent banquets and luxury items painted from the mid- to the late decades of the century. De Heem, Willem Kalf, and Abraham van Beyeren were the leading practitioners of the type. Their patrons presumably belonged to the upper echelons of society and made no secret of their expensive tastes.

De Heem is one of the rare Dutch artists who captured some of the exuberance of Flemish Baroque painting, and soon after he settled in Antwerp in the 1630s his colouristic splendour rivals that of the native Flemings. The success of his flower pieces and pronk still-lifes won him many pupils and imitators both in Flanders and in the northern Netherlands, and occasionally it is difficult to separate his hand from works done by his followers. His son Cornelis de Heem (1631-95) can come dangerously close to his father.

De Heem's works were also frequently copied during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As late as 1893 Matisse made a close reduced copy (Nice-Cimioz, Musée Matisse) after the large composition in the Louvre. He sold the copy, then bought it back and used it as an inspiration for his Variation on a Still Life by de Heem (1915; New York, Museum of Modern Art) which is about the size of the huge original. Though Matisse's Variation on de Heem still shows an unmistakable debt to the Dutch painter's composition, it has been completely translated into his personal style of these years.