I certainly hope you’ve already eaten because if not, you might find yourself getting a bit hungry. I finished my breakfast a short time ago, and it was delicious!
In my on-going quest to discover all things Dutch, I was recently browsing for recipes. I came across this one which was simple enough that even with my limited ability with the Dutch language, I was able to read and follow the recipe. My, but it was so good this morning!
My food photography isn’t any better than my art photography, but it’s Greek yoghurt topped with fresh blueberries, with coconut flakes and chopped walnuts. If anyone wants to check out the recipe, you’ll find it here — complete with a lovely photograph.
Now, to be truthful, it’s classed as a “western” dish, so I won’t say it’s really a Dutch breakfast, but the recipe was in Dutch, I read it, I fixed it, and I ate it, by golly! And by golly, again, yes, it was delicious.
But, enough of food. This is still an art blog.
Surprisingly, though, food and art quite often seem to go together. The November issue of Artist magazine focused on food, and as I’ve been reading more about still life paintings and Dutch artists, what did I find? Ontbijtjes.
All right, a very quick Dutch lesson here. Ontbijt means breakfast, and the practice of adding the little –je- suffix makes it a diminuitive word, so our ontbijtjes are “little breakfast” pieces of art. These were very popular art forms in the early part of the 17th century.
The genre is said to have begun with — not surprisingly — a female artist. Clara Peeters painted many “food paintings” with considerable skill. It seems from the high quality of her work that she must have trained with a master, but we don’t really have too much information about her and her life.
But fortunately we do have paintings to view. Here is her “Still Life with Cheeses, Artichokes, and Cherries”.
While the fare may be simple, the narrative behind this story is filled with meaning. Consider it, first, as a representation of the Dutch country itself. Butter and cheeses are strong symbols of the land and its agricultural resources.
This painting, however, reflects more than national pride. It reflects, as well, the humility of the the people themselves. We see a hard biscuit — a symbol of daily bread, thus daily life. Delicious cherries — kersen — show us the pleasures of life but with the pit and stem in the foreground, we’re quickly reminded of how fleeting joy — and life itself — can be.
The details of the painting are exquisite and highly realistic. Every cut and scrape of the knife is shown in the butter and cheese. The artichoke is richly detailed.
Other painters were more lavish and extravagant in their depictions of foods. Consider this stunning still life from Willem Claesz Heda, showing a festive banquet scene:
Even with what little I know, I can quickly recognize and identify the meaning behind many of the symbols here. The burned-down candlestick, the overturned stand, the half-peeled lemon… these all are ways of expressing those same feelings about the brevity of life and the uncertainties of the future.
From Invaluable, a premier art auction and gallery site, I learned more about the symbolism of these paintings.
The representations of delicious and familiar foods like oysters, ham, fish, bread, and fruit arranged on wooden tabletops, presented as delicacies to both admire and avoid with a religious view to eschew gluttony. Though the still life of this era and region often contained a veiled moral directive, the sensual and luxurious textures found in Dutch painting left little to imagination or appetite.
So perhaps now you’re getting hungry. Me, too, although I’m not sure I’ll ever really look at my meals again in quite the same way. And I’ll definitely never look at a still life painting again without eagerly searching out its story.