04 février 2018

Osias Beert the Elder, Still life on a plain wooden table


Lot 37. Osias Beert the Elder (Antwerp (?) circa 1580 (?) - 1624), Still life on a plain wooden table: a large Wanli porcelain dish of fruit, a pewter dish of fruit, medlars and nuts, a moth, two venetian-style glasses of wine, one white and the other red, a knife with an ornamental handle, white grapes, a roll of bread and half a peach, oil on panel, 21 by 29 3/8  in.; 53.3 by 74.6 cm. Estimate 200,000 — 300,000 USD. Lot sold 225,000 USD. Photo: Sotheby's.

Note: Osias Beert was registered as a pupil in the Antwerp painters' guild in 1596 and enrolled as a master in 1602.  Apart from being a painter, he was registered as a cork tradesman.  He trained several pupils, of whom only Frans Ykens appears to have become a still life painter, like his teacher.  Beert was one of the pioneers of still life painting in Antwerp and a highly esteemed artist, of which numerous (more or less) contemporary copies and imitations of his work bear witness.  Today, few more than a dozen signed or monogrammed still-lifes by Beert are known.  Not one of those is dated, but as many as four were painted on copper plates dated by the panel-maker to 1607, 1608, and 1609, providing at least an indication of the year in which they were painted.  Presently the known surviving total of works to be attributed to Beert with certainty does not appear to outnumber fifty.  About half of the known oeuvre of this contemporary of Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder consists of flower pieces and still lifes including bouquets;  the other half are still lifes displaying fruit, oysters and other foodstuffs, often in rather costly containers.

Usually, as is the case here, Beert's still lifes have a rather high viewpoint, which allowed the artist to arrange his motifs systematically, while one back corner of the table is often clearly visible.  In Beert's palette, earth colors are often predominant, balanced by cool blues and grays and strengthened by red, yellow and bright green accents.  His flower pieces, by the nature of their subject, show more variegation.  Beert accomplished the brightness and subtle detail in his works by the use of glazes on a light ground, while details were often rendered with fine linear accents.  While quite a few of Beert's works have lost their original quality through loss of the topmost layers of glaze, in this still life the original paint layers are generally well preserved, which allows the viewer to study Beert's handling closely.

Osias Beert often repeated motifs in his still lifes and occasionally repeated larger parts of the same composition.  Dishes of Chinese Wanli porcelain with fruit are a recurring feature in Beert's still lifes of this type.  Such porcelain was imported by the East-India trade companies and got its popular name of "Kraak" porcelain – a term still internationally used today – from early examples that were taken from a captured Portuguese merchant ship, of a type that was called a "cararcas."  At this time, early in the 17th century, such dishes were still an expensive rarity.  Judging from the border decoration, in this case Beert did not have an actual dish in front of him, but produced some kind of a fantasy Wanli decoration.1 The locally made pewter dishes were more common.  The Venetian-style wine glasses are most likely the product of one of the glass studios led by Venetian immigrants in Liège or Antwerp, rather than an actual import from Venice.  Beert's choice of fruit here, as usual, is limited to local produce.  Occasionally he would feature the more exotic lemon or orange in his still lifes, but from compositions such as this one they are usually absent.  The same knife, with its curious handle that ends in the shape of a horse shoe, can be found in at least two other still lifes by Beert.2

For the placement of his still lifes, Osias Beert often opted for bare surfaces, such as plain wooden tables, or neutral stone plinths.  Here, as in other examples, the thinness of the wash with which he has painted his table top allows it to interact with the grain pattern of the wood of the panel.  The result is highly convincing and suggestive.

The composition of this still life is typical of Osias Beert:  a rather formal array of containers filled with fruit, supplemented with wine glasses, bread, and a knife, interspersed with some small items.  Due to the lack of dated works in Beert's oeuvre it is not easy to date individual works accurately.  However, the handling of the still life discussed here appears to be quite similar to that of his paintings whose supports bear specific dates.  Consequently, a tentative date between 1608 and 1612 can be suggested for it.

Beert's still lifes do not generally appear to abound with symbolism, although, his contemporaries may well have read some into them.  The bread and wine, for instance, may have been viewed as referring to the Eucharist.  Above all, however, this would appear to be an image of luxury - God-given luxury, to be enjoyed in modesty.  As much as the content of the dishes provides a feast to their owner, Beert's image of it is – no doubt quite intentionally – a feast to the eye.

Catalogue entry written by Fred G. Meijer.

1.  The border decoration is clearly inspired by Wanli motifs, but curiously deviates from the known formal patterns, compare M. Rinaldi, Kraak Porcelain, 1989, p. 71.
2.  The first in the Heinz Family Collection, Washington, D.C., oil on panel 65 x 85 cm.; the other with De Jonckheere, Paris, 1991 (see cat. no. 6), oil on panel, 53.5 by 74.5 cm.

Sotheby's. The Otto Naumann Sale, New York, 31 janv. 2018

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