Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits



Pigs Knuckles on a Pewter Plate with Oysters and Wine Glasses on a Draped Table

oil on panel

11 x 14 inches          (28 x 36.8 cm.)


Sold to the El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas 


Private Collection, Boston, Massachusetts


The unusual mixture of expensive and modest elements in the same still life derives from a Netherlandish tradition that began in the early 1600’s.  Stemming from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-21), contemporary moralists advocated a temperate lifestyle as opposed to one spent pursuing worldly riches.  In response pendant panels that depicted a rich and poor man’s meal became popular; the intent was to reveal the ephemeral nature of opulence by contrast.  Eventually these motifs were combined in a single work as in our example. [1]

From a raised vantage point on a slightly tipped tabletop the viewer is presented with crystal wine glasses, oysters, a worn pewter plate with pigs knuckles stripped of all meat on a rough hewn table draped with a plain cloth.  Contrasting textures and shapes are defined by the clash of light and shadow within the panel.  The restriction of the palette to brown, white, grey and silver serves to unify the composition while reflecting the sobriety of its message. [2]

Crystal wine glasses were expensive as was the wine they held.  Beer was the common drink.  The wealthy favored wine especially the more robust vintages from the Mediterranean, and young white wines from France and Germany that were mixed with honey and spices.  Additionally, wine was considered an aphrodisiac. [3]  Oysters, also a luxury, were eaten in large numbers, especially in port towns such as Antwerp.  They were felt to stimulate the appetite for food as well as for sex.  Contemporary thought, as put forth by the famous Dutch doctor Johan van Beverwyck in his Schat der Gesontheydt (Treasury of Good Health) of 1636, did not regard this as particularly healthy. [4]  Pork on the other hand was regarded as healthy and often recommended for the sick. [5]  All levels of society enjoyed it and pork was abundant. [6]  Yet, with the stripping of all the meat from the bones the potential meal is meager, with only the marrow left to consume.  Pewter plates, derived from a mix of tin and lead, were common tableware.

The confrontation of temperance versus opulence has been clearly defined by a strategic use of elemental objects. The combination of wine and oysters would have been viewed as emblematic of gluttony and lust.  Plain food and common objects were seen as the path to redemption. [7]

Fred G. Meijer knows of no other example of a Dutch or Flemish still life that features pigs’ knuckles.



[1] Ildikó Ember, “Still-Life Paintings: The Hidden Meanings,” exhibition catalogue Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Delights for the Senses, Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Paintings from Budapest, 1989, pp. 22-26 & 38, fn. 33.

[2] Ibid., p. 25.

[3] Peter G. Rose, “Dutch Foodways: An American Connection” exhibition catalogue Albany Institute of History & Art, Matters of Taste, Food and Drink in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and Life, 2002, p. 20.

[4] E. de Jongh, “Jacob Foppen van Es” exhibition catalogue Auckland City Art Gallery, Still-Life in the Age of Rembrandt, 1982, p. 129.

[5] Rose, “Caspar Netscher,” op. cit., p. 96.

[6] Donna R. Barnes, “Jan Davidsz. De Heem”, Matters of Taste, op. cit., p. 76.

[7] Rose, op. cit., p. 18.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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