A TABLE OF DESSERTS
Jan Davidsz de HEEM (Utrecht 1606 – Antwerp 1684)
17th Century, Flemish
JD de Heem was one of the rare Dutch Vanitas masters to capture some of the exuberance of the Flemish baroque. No surprise, as he spent his life ping-ponging between Protestant Utrecht and Catholic Antwerp throughout the ravages of the 30 Years War. The vanitas genre lectured a moral message, for instance some of the fruit here evokes Christian symbolism: Cherries are a fruit of paradise, peaches and apples embody the forbidden fruit, grapes represent redemption, and bread and wine are of course a clear reference to the Eucharist, the bod and blood of Christ. The lute and recorder recall the pleasure of the senses and the globe at top right corner recall the universe.
Louis XIV, whose army ravaged the Netherlands in 1672 (again causing de Heem to head back to Holland), bought this painting for Versailles. Much later Matisse copied it twice – nearly replicating it in an unremarkable art-school copy in 1893, and then nearly 20 years later in 1915 when Matisse was painting during another World War.
Foodies in France, this is just one piece which is a fine candidate for a Food + Wine THATLou. It can be tricky to find (in room 26!) since the 2nd floor Richelieu is interrupted between the Netherlands and Flemish sections via a lovely set of double-barreled stairs (called “Lefuel”), where there are some impish Snyders monkeys stealing fruit). The above de Heem text is taken directly from the hunt, but with one thing missing — something obvious from the below article will be an embedded bonus question… But what? Better read carefully, because as you know there’s no internet during the treasure hunt!
There’s so much to touch on with this one painting alone, throw Matisse in there and it doubles the anti! The 30 Years War (1618 – 1648) and the Peace of Westphalia, Louis XIV and his army, Versailles and the Sun King’s art patronage, de Heem and the vanitas genre… Where to start, what to look at? We can’t do it all, let’s take the most recent – as we rarely have an excuse to discuss modern painters (the Louvre’s collection ends where the Musée d’Orsay – why not toddle across the Seine for a THATd’Or ? – picks up after the mid 19th C.)
Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) did his art-student copy of de Heem’s Table of Desserts at the age of 24 in 1893. That version is really just a replica that any art student could have made with a dim attempt for precise mimicry and little talent to show for it. However, it was important enough to catch his eye later. According to the curators of the MoMA in New York, at the start of the Great War in 1914 the French military requisitioned Matisse’s house in the Paris suburbs of Issy-les-Moulineaux. The following year when Matisse was allowed back in his home he happened across this school version of de Heem’s sumptuous still life and decided to make another copy.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Art Institute of Chicago co-curated a Matisse exhibition in 2010 called “Radical Invention 1913 – 1917” which covered a period in the artist’s life when Matisse didn’t seem to follow any one style, instead jumping from one technique to another, one model to another, one house to another. This, I suppose makes sense, as there was a World War going on after all.
That said Matisse’s own style(s) had come through by 1915 and in his Variation on a Still Life by de Heem (as he called this second version) he pulls from a cubist base and makes de Heem’s Table of Desserts his own. He called what he was doing the “Methods of Modern Construction” looking at old masters and constructing them in his modern context, peeing on the painting so to elegantly speak with vibrant colours and various techniques, yet retaining the composition so to still pay tribute to its provenance.
In a short podcast concerning Matisse’s inspiration, Stephanie d’Alessandro, a co-curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, described Matisse’s approach in his Variation on a Still Life by de Heem a “buffet of techniques”. Apt, for a period of so many (destructive) distractions.
MoMA co-curator John Elderfield and Michael Duffy also speak of the various Table of Desserts. Matisse’s art-school version is in the Musée Matisse‘s collection in Nice Cimiez’s Villa Arènes. Finding an image of this 1893 version was no easy feat – yet another reference to its obscurity.