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Still Life with Ham

© 2003 RMN / Franck Raux

Paintings
Dutch painting

Author(s):
Michèle Perny

Very little is known about the life of Floris Van Schooten, although he is recorded in Haarlem from 1612 to 1655,. He painted numerous kitchen and market scenes, as well as a great many compositions of tables set with food, including still-lifes featuring his recurrent favourite motifs of ham and cheese, as seen here.

An Ontbijtje: a breakfast piece, or snack

A pewter dish sits in the center of a table partly covered with a cloth marked by sharply-creased folds. A cut ham sits in the dish, next to an impressive pile of three of cheeses and, to the left, a blue ceramic plate loaded with food. In the foreground are a round loaf of bread, two slices of black bread resting against the edge of a metal plate holding a slice of ham, a knife, and – aligned with the three cheeses – a small round loaf and some pancakes. In the background, a drinking-glass, a grey earthenware jug, and a pewter pot may be seen against a dark ground. The composition depicts a table set for an informal, picnic-style meal, a snack or, perhaps, a hearty breakfast.

Known in the northern European tradition as an "ontbitje" (meaning a still-life depicting a breakfast, or a light meal to be taken at any time of day) pictures of this type followed a stringent set of aesthetic principles and compositional rules. The table, shown from the front and aligned with the bottom edge of the picture space, is covered with a cloth, which is usually white. The viewer looks down onto the objects arranged on the tabletop, and these are usually spread out, and clearly separated from one another. The picture presents an overall view of the foodstuffs, which are seemingly in the process of being eaten.

A conventional composition

This painting's subject and treatment are typical of early pictures of tables set for a meal. The composition centers on the motif of the ham – clearly highlighted in the middle – but is counterbalanced by the pyramid of cheeses, and the other carefully-aligned items of food. The ham and the tablecloth, which may have some religious significance, are frequent motifs in Van Schooten's paintings of meals. The white cloth and the cheeses may well refer to the Christian fasting period of Lent, when meat was forbidden, although they may equally be depicted here simply as well-known examples of staple regional produce. Painters often depicted cheeses piled in a pyramid shape, as here, with half a large round of yellowish, orange-colored cheese on the bottom, and ever-smaller cheeses on top (usually two). The darkest, most mature cheese, with a hard texture and grey-brown color is generally uppermost. The food is depicted with great technical virtuosity. Clearly-visible signs indicate that this improvised meal is in the process of being eaten: the cheeses and ham are marked with irregular cuts from a knife, one of the pancakes has been nibbled, a plate has been prepared for someone, and the knife – balanced precariously on the edge of the table – looks as if it has just been put down. The resulting picture conveys a sense of life and spontaneity, despite its somewhat rigid, conventional composition.

A painter of tables set with food

Little is known about the life of Floris van Schooten. We know that he was active in Haarlem in 1605, and he is recorded again in 1639, as dean of the Guild of St Luke (the painters' professional guild). He is mentioned again as a member of the city's Corporation in 1641. Van Schooten was best known for his many kitchen interiors and market scenes, in the tradition of Aertsen and Beuckelaer – pictures which marked his beginnings as a professional painter. He was also noted for his serene images of tables set with food, including this restrained composition with its subtle monochrome aspect. The palette of predominantly red-orange colors contrasts with the dark ground, throwing the motifs into sharp relief, and giving the painting an unquestionable authority and presence.

Technical description

  • Floris van SCHOOTEN (documented in Haarlem between 1612 and 1655)

    Still Life with Ham

  • H. 0.63 m; W. 0.83 m

  • Assigned to the Louvre by the Office des Biens Privés, 1951

    M.N.R. 708

  • Paintings

    Richelieu wing
    2nd floor
    Holland, first half of the 17th century
    Room 27

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Additional information about the work

Signed on the knife: F.V.S