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Work Still-life with Peeled Lemon

Department of Paintings: Flemish painting

Still Life with Peeled Lemon

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

Flemish painting

Patrick Le Chanu

This still-life dating from the 1650s was painted in the city of Antwerp. The peeled lemon may be seen as a symbol of time passing.

"Still" life

A pale wooden table is partly covered by a green cloth with a decorative gold fringe. A diverse selection of items is arranged on the tabletop. At the back stands a stemmed wine glass filled with white wine. In front of this is a vine branch supporting a bunch of white grapes, with a butterly resting at the top. To the right, a simpler glass is filled with red or rosé wine. In the foreground, jutting out slightly over the edge of the table, is a pewter dish holding a peeled lemon, cooked prawns and a few hazelnuts. Behind this is a bowl full of strawberries, and behind that, the handle of a knife.

The evocation of silence

This painting seems to express the very essence of Luxe, calme et volupté – luxury, calm and sensuous delight, to paraphrase Baudelaire's celebrated line from the Fleurs du Mal. The picture's somber atmosphere is evocative of silence, while the choice of foodstuffs and accessories expresses refinement and a love of exceptional, unusual objects – the expensive stemmed wine glass (possibly from the Orient), the knife with its finely engraved handle, the fine but carelessly crumpled tablecloth, the fruit pips scattered on the edge of the dish. The fruit is fresh and plump, and drops of sea-water have trickled from the oyster, over the edge of the table. Oysters and lemons are among De Heem's favorite motifs; the twisting spiral of the strip of lemon peel is a technical set piece of extraordinary virtuosity. The granular texture of the skin is rendered in relief, with tiny applications of thick, impasto paint – a departure from the otherwise uniformly smooth, glassy picture surface, too often often cited as the sole type of finish sought by Old Master painters of the Dutch and Flemish schools.

The theme of Vanity

De Heem is a masterly painter of light and reflections, as seen here on the dish and glasses, or the droplets of water. Here, too, we see his virtuoso rendering of the fine, misty covering of bloom on the skin of the grapes, the veins of the vine leaves, and their infinite variations of color. The picture's thriving insect population, crawling around the fruit and other objects, creates a secondary world all of its own, waiting to be discovered upon close examination by the attentive viewer. A caterpillar climbs up the vine branch, which creates a striking diagonal across the upper part of the composition. A second butterfly has alighted at the end of the branch. A spider has made its home in one of the grapes and a hornet is making its way around the edge of the bowl of strawberries. These tiny living creatures may hold some residual symbolic significance – insects are traditionally associated with the concept of vanity (from the Latin vanitas), the transience and futility of earthly life. The same concept is expressed by the withered, diseased vine leaf, the rotten grape, or the small worm-hole in the hazelnut next to the lemon. Above all, these details testify to De Heem's supreme technique and visionary approach to still-life painting, his abilty to transform one corner of a dinner-table into a small, private universe.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem succeeds triumphantly in depicting the tactile values of his chosen objects, and their slow emergence from the penumbra of the picture's plain, dark green ground. An artist of remarkable distinction, he settled in the city of Antwerp, where the practice of still-life painting took a wide variety of forms – from the art of the greatest animal painters and masters of baroque still-life (such as Jan Fyt or Frans Snyders, who often collaborated with Rubens), to the more austere output of painters such as Jacob Fopsen van Es. Their diverse images depict a world of silence and apparent stillness, imbued with tiny signs of life, and touched by the immutable forces of time and decay.

Technical description

  • Jan Davidsz. de HEEM (Utrecht, 1606 - Antwerp, 1683/84)

    Still Life with Peeled Lemon

  • H. 0.59 m; W. 0.42 m

  • Probably transferred from Germany following the war between the French empire and Prussia, 1806

    INV. 1320

  • Paintings

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