Looking at a Work of Art: Jan Jansz den Uyl the Elder “Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork” (1640) at the MFA, December 21, 2017
A recent major gift of Dutch masters to the MFA inspired the curators to mount a temporary show of most of the Dutch 17th century works owned by the museum. The new works, together with the older ones, combine to create a stunning collection of these works in North America. The show is entitled “Masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish Painting” and was open from Oct 11, 2017 to May 6, 2018.
I decided to try my “looking at art” process on one of these works. I have looked at paintings all my life and was fortunate to visit the great Dutch museums even as a pre-teen. But I am not an art historian or even a historian so it was a little intimidating to think I might have anything to say about my particular experience that might be of interest to others. I found the experience of choosing just one work out of so many wonderful pieces, looking, and taking notes for 45 minutes to be very gratifying however. I did discover things I wouldn’t have otherwise and I saw things that weren’t in the museum’s write-up about the work. I came away believing that one needs to bring one’s own seeing even to the Masters. It is ok to use one’s own experience when looking at historical works, not just one’s educated, historically-trained self. So I did no prepping for this visit.
Aside: I was joined by my husband who chose a different piece and followed the same “looking” process. We exchanged our discoveries there in the gallery and later over dinner. He is a lawyer, experienced in reading the implications in people’s speech and body language. He saw things I wouldn’t have. That is why it is worth creating opportunities to see and talk about art with others.
Choosing a Piece
The show extended through the 3 galleries at the MFA dedicated to Dutch and Flemish works of art. I did not read the signage about the works but, as before, chose a piece that I reacted to emotionally and that was urging me to study more closely. This was particularly important here because some works stood out as technical tour de forces or seemed highly representative of the genre or were recognizable from promotional materials or other visits to the museum. I tried to ignore the cerebral. Rather I walked through quickly but intensely trying to respond to the works viscerally.
It was a hard choice but the still-lifes were all reaching out to me and this one by Jansz den Uyl had something about it, a kind of aura, which was dissimilar to the others. So I chose it. I like looking at a still life because for me it is a window into the time and place of the artist: a window into another world. However I was very attracted to this one mostly because of the almost pure abstraction and strong composition created by a palate of Black, White, and Neutrals. I grew up in the world of abstract art so it is perhaps not surprising that I have this filter out front whenever I look at art. So come look with me.
First Responses: What am I looking at?
Is it a buffet? I am looking at a table perhaps after a dinner meal. There are white table linens in disarray. There is a water chalice; a coffee pot. There are turned over glasses, silver and pewter platters, an empty lidded jar, a spoon. There are some things I can’t identify, their function lost to my time.
And food: there is scalloped butter or cheese, a tart….is it sweet or savory? .....it has a jelly like texture.
More stuff, there’s lots of stuff on this table, a knife, a whisky-type glass, an ornate gold candle stick with no candle, an implement that could be about the candle.
What am I feeling? Both my distance from this scene but also how near it seems at the same time. It could be in a Spanish place….I am reacting to the stucco walls. It reminds me of La Bobadilla, a villa in the countryside of Spain where I have stayed. One striking thing is how very soft the light is in the back of the painting and on the walls while everything on the table has such a high contrast and is harshly focused, particularly in the front.
Surprises: the differences between items in how they are rendered. Most items are very distinct in their details but then some are really vague. Why is that? Was that done on purpose? The technique is almost completely different in separate places in the painting.
[Note on images of this painting in this blog. I took the image on my phone. It has a decent camera, but it is limited. Unfortunately, the technology behind digital camera pixelates the image so that it is really a lot of small dots. But this isn’t how the eye sees the painting. Many of the observations I make in this blog about visual effects that are so much part of the painting are obscured or even invisible in the image seen on a screen. The MFA’s professional on-line image of this work(see link under image) is better than mine of course, but it isn’t any better at depicting what I actually saw. This is a prime example of why it is so important to see as much art as possible in person, in real space, not virtually.]
- What time of day is it? Does it matter? My first reaction noted above was that it was dinner, maybe because of the types of glasses and fancy linens that I would only see at dinner time.
- Who is eating here?
- What do the materials of the items say about this world? Some are somewhat opulent but they don’t all seem so rich. But glass, metal and china dominate….there is no wood (e.g. bowls) that one would expect on a laborer’s table.
- Does not knowing what some of the things are or how they are used add or detract from my understanding of the work? Am I missing some cues that would have been obvious to the 17th century painter or viewer?
- Why does this painting seem so modern to me?
Break One: Walk around the Gallery and Come Back
[Wow, there’s this amazing doll house of the period that I could get lost in. A couple of gentlemen really know this kind of artwork and are making fascinating comparisons of symbols, techniques, etc. 3 generations of women are intensely identifying everything they can in one work.]
Back to my own looking.
I now focus on the light in the work. I see that it is sun light and that it is coming from the left at about an 11:00 angle. That would say the time of day could be placed as late morning. If I were in Holland, light coming from the left at 11:00 would make the left side of the painting the East and the walls I am looking at would be to the South. So the South might be lit by the softness of northern light, while the table is lit by harsher direct sun light.
Only now do I look at the title “Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork.” That’s reassuring.
I turn my attention to the tall vase on the back of the table. It sticks up with an almost bird-like neck. If you are close to the painting, it looks to be sitting solidly on the table. But as you back away from it, the image seems to move backward until it isn’t even part of the table disarray at all. It is kind of hanging out in space somewhere behind the table. There is a light behind it that comes from the depiction of the niche in the wall behind. It halos the glass & metal vase.
The almost black plates in the front and their shadows continue to create the effect of instability. They are almost falling off the front of the table. Again as you move backwards, they aren’t on the table enough to stay there at all.
At this point the black and white elements in this painting are taking over my mind’s eye. The neutrals have backed off and disappeared. The dark objects and areas are forming a cross pattern. A cross on its side. This is hard to explain in writing but so obvious when standing there staring at this painting for a long time. The long direction goes from the black coffee pot on the left and across the table to the pewter plate and whiskey glass on the right. The shorter direction is made with the tall glass vase in one direction and the jar and plates coming out toward you in the front part of the table. This is getting a little eerie.
It really isn’t that much of a leap to the next level where the cross I just described starts to look like a figure or a person lying down. It is a kind of pieta.
The next step doesn’t seem too great either. Out away from the painting the glass vase is already seen as floating somewhere from behind the table. So it become a spirit vase….a symbol of the spirit rising from the collapsed and bleeding body (of Christ). Bleeding? ....note copper chalice on its side about where the ribs would be.
The background is vague because the spirit is going on its journey to an indistinct and unknown future.
The black coffee pot on the left is the head. The black table cloth on the right becomes a shroud covering part of the body. The white highly draped linens in the front become Mary’s draped arms embracing the lifeless body.
The vision that is emerging suggests why some parts of painting have been rendered in a soft, indistinct manner and others are highly detailed and contrasty. The highly detailed, sharp parts are the physical ‘in the now’, while the indistinct parts are the future and the afterlife.
It is interesting because if you stand half way across the room, the objects blend together and this cross pattern is very strong. As you walk closer, objective reality starts to come forward until at 4 feet, objective reality is all you see. And of course one rarely looks at a still life from far away because we are drawn to its detailed content and want to get up close. But certainly this artist looked at his work from many different perspectives and would have seen these things change as he perfected his composition.
Looking Afresh: Seeing from Different Angles
As noted in other blog posts in this series, I like to look at a painting from extreme angles. I found that the cross effect was particularly strong from the left. This would also be from the direction from which the sun was coming. The way the glass/metal back vase seems to move off the table and becomes just a shadow behind the table is almost eerie from this angle. Nothing else on the table does this at all.
Returning to Initial Questions
I’m needing to return to my question about why this piece seems so modern. It certainly isn’t from the religious underpinnings I have been describing. Some of it are the colors, some is the composition. If just looked at as blocks of dark, light, and neutral, the composition really holds up and is very satisfying. Perhaps some of the modern-seeming is the combination of ‘photo realistic’ parts and impressionistic parts. The way light is treated is somewhat impressionistic. That is all fine and good but in the end the technique that is revealed in the ephemeral “glass and metal” vase is just masterful, at least for this viewer.
We are given an image of the hastily left breakfast remains of a well-off burgher/bourgeois owner and his family, perhaps as they hurriedly leave to take care of the affairs of the day. The clean-up is left for the servants but the bosses having gone, the servants have been slow to return everything to order. The breakfasters use a hodge-podge of ornate and everyday utensils to partake of quite decent food. But their minds are elsewhere while they eat, thinking of the tasks to be done that day. In the end, this meal and these tasks are forgotten and we are left now with just the aura of a journey to something unknown and unknowable.
Some after notes.
I found the info provided by the MFA that the artist signed with an owl quite fun. That it was in the handle of the coffee pot was even better since I saw that vessel as a symbolic head, perhaps of Christ. So owlish wouldn’t you say? I also found the suggested symbols of time and death in the watch and unlit candle, neither of which I saw at the time, quite consistent with my reading of the piece. I wrote down that the signage said the work was painted in 1640. It says 1639-40 on-line. Whichever, it also says that Jansz died in either 1639-40, which makes this one of his last paintings. So wouldn’t he be thinking about death and what comes next at this point in his life? The work has come to mean for me so much more than “just another still life by a Dutch master”.