Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


GERMAN SCHOOL (?), Circa 1610 – 1620s

Waffles and Butter on Pewter Plates with an Apple, Roll, Jug, Standing Salt, and a Beer Glass with Prunts on a Cloth-Covered Table

oil on panel

15 ¼ x 20 inches          (38.6 x 51.2 cm.)

To the seventeenth century viewer, this still life would immediately have brought to mind thoughts of joyous occasions. Waffles in particular were reserved for special celebrations, most notably during the yearly Carnival that preceded Lent.[1] Further they were standard fare during the winter holiday of the Epiphany, as well as Easter and Pinkster.[2]

The association of waffles with Carnival was memorialized in 1559 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Battle Between Carnival and Lent (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) in which a female waffle-maker is depicted in a detail of the panel extending a long two-armed metal press over an open fire. Preparing to sell her wares, she, along with her clients, is counted among revelers at the fair.[3]  Further emphasizing their connection to the feast, Bruegel displays a stack of waffles along with four bread rolls on a table-top carried by a “nun” who follows behind the rotund figure of Carnival.[4] In the lower left corner of the composition, a standing waffle-seller in a white mask and wearing a necklace of eggs clutches his wares, while another waffle-maker, recognizable by the three waffles strapped to his hat, is engaged in a game of dice with a Carnival “devil”. The stake is one waffle.[5]

While this panel encapsulates the sensual pleasures on offer at Carnival, the presence of an apple adds a cautionary note. Contemporary moralists advocated a temperate lifestyle as the road to salvation, whereas drinking and feasting were regarded as vices best avoided. Further, the possession of costly objects and delicacies can be viewed as emblematic of the transient nature of earthly riches. The apple is the ultimate symbol for original sin. The portrayed white roll resembles those depicted in Bruegel’s work and is again reflective of a treat. White rolls were costly, whole wheat or rye bread the standard fare.[6] Beer which would have been contained in the jug and drunk from the beer glass was consumed by both children and adults. Usually made from fermented hops and malted barley, it was boiled in its preparation and thus safer to drink than water, which was often contaminated.[7] Butter and salt were also luxury items. This was particularly true of salt, here indicated by its central positioning behind the waffles and its imposing cylindrical container.[8] The pronounced creases of the fine linen tablecloth show it to be from a well-run household as it is freshly laundered.

In all likelihood and fittingly such a work as this would have been painted to be sold at Carnival or other fairs. At these events an area was set aside by the local guild which permitted their members and non-members as well as foreigners to sell their works. It is believed that at this point still lifes were mainly painted for the open market, with only a small number executed on a commission basis. Many artists also acted as dealers.[9]

This work, thought to have been painted in Germany, is dated by Fred G. Meijer to the 1610 - 1620s, but not later than 1630.[10] Executed when the painting of still lifes was relatively new, its point of origin is a bit difficult to pin down because of the way the genre evolved. Around the end of the sixteenth century, strong interest developed in floral and still life pieces in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Frankfurt, Middleburg, and Prague. Due to trade and the flow of cultural exchange between these capitals, a style came about which overall was fairly similar, although local traditions played a role in individual development.[11] Such telltale elements in this composition as the high vantage point and upward tipping of the back of the table are characteristic of the early period of its execution. Also typical is the equal distribution of food and objects at regular intervals throughout the panel’s surface, as is the employment of a simple color palette.[12] The protrusion of the waffle plate over the edge of the table is an early device used to add three-dimensionality to the scene, breaking down the picture plane and inviting the viewer to partake of the refreshments on hand.[13] Light from an unseen source on the left is reflected on the belly, lid, and handle of the beer jug, as well as on the salt cellar, and pewter plates, with all of the objects’ shadows accordingly cast to the right. The opacity of the dark background enhances the illumination of the table’s contents. Meant to delight the senses and serve as a reminder of pleasurable events, time has done nothing to diminish the painter’s intent.

We would like to thank Fred G. Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague, and the food historian Peter G. Rose for their valuable assistance in the writing of this entry.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-69),&nbsp; Battle Between Carnival, or Mardi Gras, and Lent, &nbsp;1559, oil on board, 46 1/2 x 64 4/5 inches (118 x 164.5 cm.) Collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum, courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, Mondadori Portfolio, Electa, Remo Bardazzi, Bridgeman Images

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-69), Battle Between Carnival, or Mardi Gras, and Lent, 1559, oil on board, 46 1/2 x 64 4/5 inches (118 x 164.5 cm.) Collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum, courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, Mondadori Portfolio, Electa, Remo Bardazzi, Bridgeman Images


[1] Peter G. Rose, “Food for Special Occasions in the Netherlands and New Netherland” in Matters of Taste, Food and Drink in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art and Life, Albany Institute of History and Art, Syracuse University Press, 2002, p. 25.

[2] Written communication from Peter G. Rose, dated April 6, 2015.

[3] Kenneth Bendiner, Food in Painting from the Renaissance to the Present, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 2004, p. 188.

[4] Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005, p. 89.

[5] Andrew Graham-Dixon, In the Picture: The Year in Art, Allen Lane, London, 2003, p. 36.

[6] Henry D. Gregory, “Narrative and Meaning in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life” in Pieter Claesz, Master of Haarlem Still Life, exhibition catalog, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, November 27, 2004 - April 4, 2005, p. 99.

[7] Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984, p. 172; and Peter G. Rose, “Food and Drink in the Netherlands during the Seventeenth Century” in Matters of Taste, op. cit., p. 20.

[8] E. de Jongh, “Clara Peeters” in Still-Life in the age of Rembrandt, exhibition catalog, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1982, p. 68; and Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, eds., Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Philip Wilson Publishers, The University of Cambridge, p. 196.

[9] Titia van Leeuwen, “Still-Life painting in the Netherlands: Historical Facts and Facets” in Still Life in the age of Rembrandt, op. cit, p. 50; and Pamela Hibbs Decoteau, Clara Peeters, Luca Verlag, Lingen, 1992, p. 10.

[10] Written communications from Fred G. Meijer, dated January 23, 2015, and January 28, 2015.

[11] N. R. A. Vroom, A Modest Message as intimated by the painters of the “Monochrome Banketje”, Interbook International B.V., Schiedam, 1980, pp. 13-14.

[12] Titia van Leeuwen, op. cit., p. 47; and Pamela Hibbs Decoteau, op. cit., pp. 12, 15.

[13] Pamela Hibbs Decoteau, op. cit., p. 32; and Peter C. Sutton, “Willem Kalf” in Dutch and Flemish Paintings, The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, Frances Lincoln Limited, London, 2002, p. 147.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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