With great joy I took up the challenge set by one of the Readers and took a fresh look at the painting which I pass almost every day. Willem Claesz. Heda’s “Dessert” is for me one of those works that I respect, but with some indifference. However, I know that others are fascinated by it with a hypnotic power. I wonder why?

Willem Claesz. Heda, Dessert: still life with pastry, wine, beer and nuts, 1637, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

The first thing I see is semi darkness and chaos. The interior, which is difficult to name, is partially illuminated by the window on the left. However, we do not see it directly. Its multiplied in reflection appearing in the greenish glass of the goblet, standing at the edge of the table. The light seems to flow down from above, giving the composition a slightly mystical overtone. Dutch still lifeless are often interpreted in a moralistic spirit. They are to observe the excess of pleasure, remind us of the transience of material goods and inform about the only good path of salvation. Its essence is the Light of the teachings of Christ, which overcomes the darkness of sin.

However, I am more interested in items on the table. They create chaos in which is hidden a story different than the warning against the vanity of this world. On the table there are, apart from the green römer (this is the name of the glass goblet), a silver plate with a half-eaten fruit pastry, an overturned silver wine cup and behind it a blue and white plate, balancing on the curvature of the tablecloth. The impression of the muddle is intensified by nuts and its shells scattered all over. The painting belongs to the “ontbijt” genre – meaning breakfast or dessert. Here the scene shows the moment just after having a small meal consisting of simple, local ingredients.

What surprises is the silver wine cup displayed in the center, clearly unused and carelessly abandoned. Its punched (aka stamped) surface beautifully reflects light. Such goblets were produced in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, as well as beautiful faience vessels that imitated the imported from China porcelain. The plate visible in the painting is probably a local product, also known as “Delft blauw”, or in English – a delftware. Hidden in the shade is a glass of beer, an indispensable component of every Dutch meal. The only foreign element seems to be white wine, certainly imported from outside the rainy Netherlands.

The composition of Heda’s “Dessert” emanates with an intimate atmosphere that can be an invitation to almost religious meditation. However, I would rather choose a different path. The one leading to the story of people and their times. Telling about the pride in the skill of local goldsmiths. About the creativity of potters who wanted to gain the secrets of making porcelain. Finally – about small pleasures of everyday life offered by the local products and crops.

And what story do you choose for yourself?

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