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Still life with Parrots

Jan Davidsz. De Heem (1606-1684). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Sarasota, Florida USA. Late 1640s.

Many still lives are bleak pictures, without inspiration, closed and without joy. There are often only a few objects displayed, the pictures are exercises in style or the painter had no other meaning but to show his craftsmanship. Although colours may be bright, especially for seventeenth century Dutch paintings, the background is often brownish, quite vast and without interest. After all, although in most languages these pictures are indeed called ‘still lives’, they are called in French ‘Nature Morte’ or ‘dead nature’. We usually are at unease with these paintings. We have an impression of solitude such as we can feel when we wake up in an afternoon alone in a quiet house. We feel lost and aching, without aim in life and we have undefined fears. These were the feelings that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘La Nausée’, the existential fear, and the one emotion that was so hated and utterly refused by Europeans. It was the loneliness and fate of the small human being confronted with vast eternity.

The painting ‘Still Life with Parrots’ also is supposed to be such a picture of things dead, of life that was, of lifeless objects, things drawn artfully together either to show the skill of the painter or to be an object of decoration. Yet this picture of Jan Davidsz De Heem is something quite different, isn’t it?

Life is crawling all over the place. The parrot is well alive though not flying; he proudly guards and shows the exhibition. There are shells of sea life with contorted forms, and dark green leaves reminiscent of a half-wild garden. There are apples and citrus fruit, luscious grapes and the menacingly long knives of a lobster. It is all a feast for the eye and one easily believes the whole to live a life of its own. These objects talk to us as they are together. They talk of joy, of far countries; they make us dream and wonder. We will enjoy a feast and while looking at them or eating them we will not be alone anymore. One object says, ‘I grew in an untended and wild orchard in Holland’. Another, ‘I stood with my sisters in a meadow in Spain’. Yet another, ‘I was crawling under hundred fathoms of water’. Or, ‘I am to be found on the beaches of the South Seas, I open my interiors to you – please come in to find a mystery, a pearl, and a dream’. ‘And I, the nut, am so small, but I am the boss of it all, see: I climbed on a pedestal!’ This is pure happiness in colours and forms.

The art of the painter is of course present; these objects are not just thrown together at random. There is mathematics and geometry here, as good as in the best Piero della Francesca. There is a hard line of sharp-angled objects going from down right to upper left. One of the seashells in the lower right points to the lobster and the parrot’s beak. This line is drawn from sea-life very deep (the shells) over the earth-things (fruit) to air-life very high (the birds, the parrot) with the lobster as an animal in-between. The lobster is an odd-man-out here. It should have been at the lower part of the picture, not so high. And it peeks from behind the curtain. It has apparently escaped from the design of the artist. It has a life of its own, it was not quite dead, and it has crawled from where it should be, to another place. De Heems painting really is alive.

Another line is at a right angle to the former. This line starts left and goes to the right. This is the soft line of small round things: citrus fruit, apples, round oysters on a long oval plate that accentuates the direction. It goes from acid (citrus, oysters that just ask for lime) to sweeter fruits (the grapes). So we have to look twice: once from the big shells to the lobster and parrot, to the animal that hangs in the air biting a cut round object, and then we follow the other, lush, soft round flesh citrus-grapes line. Even the large golden vase is all made of round protruding rose buttons, eyes, or whatever your imagination dictates you instantly after following the other round things. It makes the vase also alive.

Most of the objects are open to you, not closed. They invite you to enter or to touch them. They cry out “you are not alone, we invite you amongst us. Touch us, feel us, plunge your hands in us, penetrate us and wallow in us”. The horn shells open their mouths, the citrus is half undone and shows its juicy interior, the oysters are all ready and moist, the melons show their red flesh inside until - following the first line always - we can rest and hide in the green foliage. One can easily surmise very sexual meanings in all this display of open flesh. The other line may then tell us of the angled thorny pains of sin that can follow.

The overall theme of de Heem’s picture is abundance. There is profusion above the structure. The displayed fruit and objects have all been used in Dutch still lives for their symbolism. Thus, the white and red grapes with in between the peaches are a recurrent theme. The grapes generally are symbols of the union between Man and God. Grapes need much tending and long maturation. The grapes are symbols of the virtue of patience. The white grapes give white wine, which is drunk by the Catholic priest during the Holy Mass liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. The red grapes pressed with their skins give a liquid as red as the blood of Christ. The half-filled glass next to the grapes, holding a wine, refers to the Eucharist. This idea is emphasised by the butterfly near the glass. The butterfly is ready to fly and so lightly that it was a symbol of the soul.

The peaches among the grapes were a symbol of truth in ancient iconography. A peach with one leaf represented hearth and tongue. Truth springs from the union of hearth and tongue G41 . Christ’s good message was a true message. The grapes and peaches are on the left side next to a blue box on which stands another wineglass. Blue was always the colour of heaven, of piety and of divine essence. The pomegranates that are close also are a Christian symbol. They refer to the Resurrection of Christ. The many seeds contained in its case are a symbol of the unity of the many under one authority, the authority of the church’s clergy. Vases are symbols of smell, one of the five senses. A golden vase such as in de Heem’s picture can refer to abundance. Its position close to the grapes and wineglass can indicate a ciborium, used to contain the hosts of the Eucharist. All the elements in this part of the picture thus refer to Christ’s sacrifice.

Symbolism continues in the tilted dish with the oysters. A tilted dish was used for special meaning in Dutch paintings. It was for instance the main theme of a Roelof Koets still life now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Orléans- France. De Heem used the theme in other of his pictures as for instance in a still life of the Louvre, Paris. The tilted dish was an additional means to show more fruit in the still life. The tilted dish however meant instability, moral degeneration. In de Heem’s picture the element is associated with open fruit showing their opulent flesh. The oranges near the oysters are symbols of sin. Oranges are often a replacement of the apples of original sin. The oysters themselves are a symbol of lust and sexual desire. Oysters are shown frequently by Dutch painters in genre scenes, for instance next to a man holding a woman’s breasts. Spices were supposed to arouse sexually, a spice holder for pepper is near the oysters.

The dark, silver pitcher on the lower left is an attribute of Hebe who was the handmaiden of the Gods. Hebe personified temperance G41 . Thus, the pitcher can be understood as a symbol of temperance. It contains the water to put out the fires of lust. The pitcher symbolises sexual temperance. The citrus fruit down from the oysters are unwound, representing the passing of time. This feeling is strengthened by the empty seashells, which may indicate the emptiness of life. Finally, the red damask tablecloth is withdrawn from one corner of the table to show a dark mass of foliage. This may represent hell, a dark disorderly space into which an immoral life leads. Underneath we see a lamp. It is not lit, but Jesus referred to himself as the light in the darkness. This light is extinguished here.

The upper part of the painting represents the virtues of a life according to God’s word. Here all objects are reminiscent of Jesus’s life. The lower part represents lust and lechery, immorality.

The painting ‘Still life with Parrots’ of de Heem does not just show abundance of objects and forms. It contains dense symbolism. It seems to be almost an encyclopaedia of spiritual symbols used in Dutch still lives of the seventeenth century. De Heem puts all the symbols and meanings skilfully together in an ordered and yet natural manner. The painting is all order beneath the confusion. The picture looks so simple, yet it has several hidden meanings to what is a complex moral message. The five senses can be discerned in the images. The parrots can represent hearing, the oysters represent taste, and the protuberant forms of the golden vase can represent touch and all the luxuriant food and a symbol for sight. Wonderful smells are certainly in the air and the prominent golden vase was also an ancient attribute of smellG41.

Dutch still lives most often were full of underlying moral meaning. They were then called ‘Vanitas’ still lives, which admonish the viewers to remember the transience of life and the worthlessness of earthly pleasures. ‘Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas’ is a phrase from the Ecclesiasticus book of the Bible, referring to temperance and the passing of time. In the painting of de Heem the magnificently coloured parrot looks with pity at a killed, dark parrot hanging head down and dead from the ceiling. Thus, life is immediately linked to death.

Finally, the whole movement of symbols leads to the nut on the pedestal, just on the border of the table. The outer, green case of nuts represented the flesh of Christ. The hard shell of the nut was the wood of the cross. The kernel of the nut represented Christ’s divine nature. The nut stands in de Heem’s painting between lust and death. The nut has also been used as a symbol of female virginity. The breaking of the nut was thought to represent the breaking of the hymn in marriage. The oysters also refer to this image. In de Heem’s painting the nut can either symbolise continued lust or the remembrance of Christ at the time of death and the last redemption.

De Heem was Dutch, born in the town of Leiden in 1606, so he would be prone to some moralising since he was brought up amidst the stern Protestant Holland environment. He moved to Antwerp in 1635 and spent most of his career as a painter there, until he died in 1684. Antwerp was then still an important port, but her golden days were over. The worse times of the religious wars seemed past but had broken the city. Alexander Farnese had conquered and taken the town in 1585 for the Catholic Spanish king. Most of the Protestant clergymen had to leave after that or convert, and had indeed left the town. With them of course went most of the wealth. Businessmen and merchants left the town for Amsterdam, which would have from then on, through the whole of the seventeenth century, a booming economy, and its Golden Age in arts.

So the town of Antwerp was to be Roman Catholic. The flamboyant counter-reformation kind of Catholicism prevailed. And while to the north of Antwerp the more austere Amsterdam flourished with its newly found wealth brought by the Protestants that had fled from Antwerp, the Brabant Antwerp was left between hope for better times and fear for worse. The hope and fear you can find in both lines of the painting of de Heem. Worse was to come.

But the first three decades of the 1600s were still benign to Antwerp and de Heem could find all the exotic (exotic to Flanders and Brabant) fruit, birds, animals and objects that are depicted here. De Heem could find here wealthy burghers to buy his paintings, as painters at all times looked for and worked where the money was. The new Catholic South Netherlands had both (still) the money, the tolerance and the joy of life that a painter like de Heem needed to thrive on. He was not just an artist, but also an excellent artisan, a skilled professional who knew all the tricks of his profession. Such as to build in delight of oysters and surprises like the lobster and the nut to discover.

De Heem was certainly not the only Antwerp artist in that period: the most famous Rubens lived there from 1577 to 1640, Anthony van Dyck from 1599 to 1641 and Jacob Jordaens from 1593 to 1678. There were many, many others. Look at the dates. David Teniers lived from 1610 to 1690, Adam van Noort from 1562 to 1641, Marten Pepijn from1575 to1643. Abraham Janssens lived from 1575 to 1632, Gerard Seghers from 1591 to 1651. Theodore Rombouts lived from 1597 to 1637, Cornelis Schut from 1597 to 1655, Erasmus Quellin from 1607 to 1678. Theodore van Dulden lived from 1600 to 1669, Jan Boeckhorst from 1605 to 1668, Thomas Bosschaert from 1613 to 1654, Abraham van Diepenbeeck from 1590 to 1675, Cornelis de Vos from 1585 to 1651 and so many more. Many still life painters lived there also, such as Frans Snijders, Daniel Seghers, Jacob van Es and others. Antwerp was a marvellous town for painters, with many rich citizens avid for visual delight in their houses, always ready to boast among each other and show off as true Brabanders with their acquisitions of luxurious paintings.

Antwerp, as Brussels, was in earlier centuries a part of the Duchy of Brabant. The last Duchess of Brabant had died childless in the fourteenth century and left her lands to the Duke of Burgundy. The last Duchess of Burgundy then, Mary of Burgundy, had married the Austrian prince Maximilian. This marriage would lead to an enormous empire that would encompass in the seventeenth century the North and South Netherlands (with Flanders and Brabant), the Austrian lands as well as of course Spain with all its wealth in South America. The Protestant Antwerp revolted to the Catholic King of this empire and contrary to the Northern Netherlands, could not hold. But the Brabant joyful spirit continued to live. A Dutch writer, Gerbrand Bredero of Amsterdam, wrote in 1617 a novel called ‘The Spanish Brabander Jerolimo’, in which he brings mockingly on the scene a boisterous, cantankerous Brabander. The rich and poor shared the same joy; you can find it also represented in Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of Brabant village feasts. Despite the war lost to the King of Spain, despite the loss of half of its population, humiliated and castigated, the Antwerp Brabanders did not loose their spirits and continued to show off as if they were the proudest and richest people of Europe.

Therefore this painting had to depict expensive fruit and rare animals. Citrus fruit certainly did not come cheap in the Antwerp of the seventeenth century and oysters were a luxury just as they are now in Paris, where they are still symbols of opulence and richness when you see them in the stalls of the restaurants along the fancy boulevards. Parisians would be quite surprised to find out that their favourite oysters were not one of their twentieth or at best nineteenth century’s inventions, but were already on the plates of burghers of the seventeenth century. By the way, in Antwerp today you find no open stalls with oysters. The restaurants are full of mussels and French fries for the masses. And of course, our contemporary clothes have lost the buoyancy of colours and different textiles of the seventeenth century.

One can easily understand why John Ringling bought this painting in the 1920s. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is entirely dedicated to Baroque art. Ringling liked Italian art, but also the Rubens, Jordaens and van Dyck paintings, and those of other Antwerp masters. The museum gives these pictures the splendid vast rooms, which suit them so well. It is an enormous Italian Renaissance villa, with two long wings, lined with vaults and columns, around fountains in a wide patio garden. There even is a full-sized copy of Michelangelo’s David in the courtyard. Ringling was a showman and collected some of the finest, most grandiose paintings in the world. Among which this de Heems ‘Still Life with Parrots’.

The Baroque era appealed most to a person as of a character like John Ringling. He was a partner in the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, maybe the most fabulous circus the earth has ever seen and you can still find his circus museum next to his art museum in Sarasota, Florida. He built a Venetian villa for a house close to the museum, and Mable Ringling had a real Venetian gondola to make trips in Sarasota bay. The Ringlings came to Sarasota because the Barnum and Bailey circus held its winter quarter there. This tradition has been continued for four or five generations of circus people now. Sarasota is the winter quarter of most of the independent circus people of the United States of America. They remain in Sarasota for the three winter months with their caravans, elephants and tigers. In the evening they meet in their own tavern hall ‘Showfolks’ where the walls are lined with memories and photographs of the artists. There is even a circus school in Sarasota. The town has really remained the circus capital of the world.

European intellectuals can be scandalised by the incongruous and odd display of nouveau-riche fortune that John and Mable Ringling assembled in the Sarasota museums. They may find this all ‘kitsch’ art. But we cannot but admire the joy and the self-confidence of the Ringlings, which would have appealed to the old Brabanders. The Ringlings were certainly encouraged by their artistic environment. All this display testifies to what circus people try to show: we can do many amazing things on this earth, wherever we want, whenever we want. Dream and your dream will come true. And dream also of higher learning and higher art. So, Ringling brought back to the Unites States some of the art that was as much his heritage as the heritage of contemporary intellectual Europeans.

We should be grateful to John Ringling and admire him for the wonderful museum built in the town of the winter quarters of his circus. As Robin Skynner and John Cleese remark in ‘Life and how to survive it’ G27 , ‘a circus is a place of apparent madness where we can enjoy the excitement of seeing wild animals, but circus people do know how to handle them.’ Baroque art and this ‘Still Life with Parrots’ are certainly like that.

De Heem knew how to keep order in his own circus … well, except for the lobster.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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