Jacob van Es (Flemish, 1590–1666),
oil on wood panel, 29¾ x 42 in.; 75.57 x 106.7 cm
Museum purchase through income from the Art Acquisition Endowment Fund 1970–75 and Major Arts Purchase, 1974.56
A native of Antwerp, the center of arts in Flanders, Jacob van Es seems to have painted exclusively what were called “breakfast pieces,” or representations of light meals with eating and drinking utensils. It was not unusual for seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish still-life painters to specialize in a single class of objects, but while many of his contemporaries experimented with dramatic light effects and dynamic baroque compositions, van Es preferred to paint clearly lit and distinct forms spread more or less evenly across an inclined, horizontal plane. In Still Life, each meticulously painted object commands its own space, with very little overlapping, casting its own shadow. Compositional unity results from the repetition of certain shapes, such as the ovoid forms of the foreshortened plates, and colors, as in the subdued yellow of the butter shavings, cheese, and lemon.
Like many of his contemporaries, van Es sometimes included specific symbols derived from earlier religious painting in his apparently secular still lifes, but it is uncertain if such is the case in this painting. The bread and wine may refer to the Eucharist, and through it to Christ’s Passion, just as the purple and white grapes may signify the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s pierced side on the Cross. Oranges sometimes replaced apples to evoke the Fall and Original Sin, and pomegranates were ancient symbols for resurrection. Whether or not these particular readings were intended here, it is likely that this breakfast piece expressed in a general way the idea of transience, the fleeting nature of all things doomed to decay and corruption. In the seventeenth century, evidence of an interrupted meal was apt to be understood as a reminder of remorseless Death, ever ready to snatch man away in the midst of earthly pleasures.