Pieter Claesz and Willem Heda, painters in the Dutch city of Haarlem, were two of several artists who included crabs in their still lifes. Crabs and other shell fish were available to them because the Dutch had recently won their freedom from the rule of a strict Spanish Catholic King, who had inherited the land, and who had sent the Inquisition to drive out all of the Protestants. He had failed, and in defeat he announced he would rule none but Catholics. All Protestants must leave the southern lands and go north. He divided the land into two countries, Belgium and Holland. The newly freed Dutch were able to establish an enormously prosperous shipping and trading company, the Dutch East India Company, which allowed them to bring in new and exotic goods to Dutch ports and from them to the rest of Europe. Fruits such as dates, oranges and lemons, nuts, spices such as cinnamon, ginger and saffron, sugar from colonies in Brazil and Guyana, coffee, tea, silk and Chinese porcelains, carpets and other commodities were now available to the new Dutch middle class able to own their own homes, run business and prosper under the new Protestant government.
Still life paintings were one of the new subjects which artists employed to show this new middle class life and the new prospects available to the people. The North Sea river delta provided fish, particularly herring, which the Dutch had learned to preserve by salting. Traditional Dutch cuisine consisted of beer, salted or fresh fish, cheese and butter made from milk, rolls, and seasonal root vegetables. Pieter Claesz’s “Nature mort au crab” (1644) (19’’x64’’), illustrates the availability of these new items. A large crab on a pewter plate is surrounded by a Roemer, a wine glass with a knobbed bottom to prevent drinker’s hands from slipping, a glass of beer, a crusty roll, a turned over glass, acorns, a mother of pearl inlaid knife, a peeled lemon, and a crisp white table cloth.
As was typical of Heda, his “Pewter and Silver Vessels and Crab” (1637) (21’’x29’’), included additional luxury items; an elaborate flagon, a salt seller, an overturned silver compote, a satin sheen white table cloth, and a Chinese porcelain dish. In both paintings, wine has replaced beer as the popular drink. Crabs and lemons reveal the new abundance of foods. Peeled lemons had become extremely popular in still lifes and are both symbolic and a tribute to the artists skills. Peeled lemons allowed the artist to paint four textures: the lumpy outer skin, the white rind, the transparent white sheath covering the fruit, and the juicy inner fruit. The yellow color of the lemon reflects the color of the sun which radiates positive energy, and the juice was discovered to be a natural cleanser. With sugar added to the juice, it is refreshing drink, but without the sugar the juice is sour.
A formerly Catholic people, Dutch Protestant were accustomed to finding many symbolic items in paintings, this tradition continued with the Dutch Protestants. Many still lives were recognized as “Vanitas,” works to remind people of the eventual end of life and the need to guard against sin, one of which was indulgence. The broken and dried out roll leaving crumbs on the table represents the bread of life. The overturned glass and silver compote are ‘‘momento mori”, as is the cluttered appearance of the objects. The acorns in Claesz’s painting suggest the idea mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and represent strength and prosperity, which can be lost when the acorn is crushed. Salt reminds us of the salt of the earth, and represents hospitality and friendship as meals are shared. Incorruptible, salt protects food from decay; if sown into the soil, it prevents plants from growing. The “Vanitas” was meant to display the ongoing battle between pleasure and vice and ultimately the choice between heaven or hell after death.
In later years the number and variety of items increased as did the symbols. Claesz’s “Pewter Dishes of Crabs and Oysters, Trays of Roemer, Basket of Peaches and Grapes” (1657) (42’’x54’’), and Heda’s “Still Life with Pie, Silver Ewer, Nautilus Shell, and Crabs” (1658) (41×48’’,) are examples. Both works include crabs, and Claesz added oysters, representing humility with the rough outer shell which protects and hides the pearl. Pearls of great price are a familiar Biblical reference and represent salvation. In the opposite meaning, Oysters were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Olive trees take many years of cultivation and care before the rich fruit can grow, thus olive trees need to grow in an environment of peace. An apple, signifying the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, is included with the lemons. Walnuts, thought to resemble the shape of the human brain, are symbolic of wisdom and knowledge. They also are recognized as a potent male symbol. Grapes are another obvious symbol representing the blood of Christ in communion. The rolled up pieces of paper contain spices to be sprinkled on food. The overturned gilded nautilus shell, taken from the sea, was a reminder to the Dutch that prosperity and supremacy on the seas could be overturned.
Both Pieter Claesz and Willem Heda were members of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. Guilds were organizations for men of a single occupation. Common all over Europe, guilds were named for a patron saint. Membership had to be earned and voted on. St Luke was the patron saint of artists because it was commonly accepted that St. Luke painted a portrait of the Virgin. Although there are a very large number of extant paintings by each artist, we know very little about them, except that they were extremely prolific and popular.
One additional crab painting was created by another extremely popular Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh. “Crabs” (1657) (19’’x24’’)(19’’x24’’), is dated to his release from asylum in Arles in January 1889. He wrote to his brother Theo: “I am going to set to work again tomorrow. I shall start by doing one of two still lifes to get used to again.” The crabs were most likely inspired by a Japanese print by Hokusai in the May 1888 issue of Le Japon Aristique sent to him by Theo.
Julie Berger Hochstrasser reminds us in her book, Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Age (2007), the commodities in Dutch still lifes were available as a result of aggressive colonialism and brutal enslavement of populations of people. She references today’s much sought after commodities such as Nikes and iPhones come from many of the same countries where they are manufactured under similar conditions and labor practices as those of the Dutch companies hundreds of years ago.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.