Paper #2—Jan Jansz den Uyl, Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork
Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork is an oil on panel produced by Jan Jansz den Uyl, an artist of the Dutch Baroque period. The painting is dated around 1637-39 and measures 130.5 x 115.5cm. It depicts a disarray of objects—pewter, goblets, plates and unfinished food—strewn across the tabletop on top of a piece of rumpled white linen. Although it may seem like an ordinary still-life painting, the artist attempts to convey a hidden message to the audience through his careful selection and arrangement of the subject matter. This essay will explore how den Uyl achieves this by presenting a formal visual analysis with emphasis placed on the painting’s composition and historical context.
Breakfast Still Life with Glass and Metalwork can be organized into two planes. The background consists of a wall with a niche on the right hand side; it is separated approximately down the middle by light and shadow. In the foreground is a table covered with rumpled white linen on the right side, on top of which is a large pewter flagon, a pair of overturned glass and gold goblets, and a piece of ornate Venetian glassware framed by the niche. A gold plate hangs precariously at the side of the table facing the viewer and would have fallen off if it were not balanced by the weight of another plate stacked upon it. A spoon and a pocket watch are placed nearby. There is also an upset metal container and a porcelain plate with a morsel of stylized cheese or butter elevated on a tin can. A long piece of black cloth covering the whole table is made visible on the right end. A plate of half-eaten pie and a silver spoon lay forgotten along with the glass half-filled with an unknown beverage. The leftovers are surrounded by a silver plate, a small knife and some bits and crumbs; a trail of black smoke is rising from the empty candlestick holder, signifying that the absent candle was not extinguished by the candlesnuffer but left to die out on its own.
Continuing the traditional style of the Northern Renaissance, den Uyl presents a still life painting with extreme attention to detail. This is evident in the depiction of the Venetian glasswork and the handle of the pewter, where the artist has included his signature. “Den Uyl” means “owl” in Dutch, which is portrayed on the pewter’s handle. Small drops of water are also evident on the metallic surface, which serves to highlight the artist’s skillfulness. Typical of Northern European paintings, Den Uyl also conveys the tactility of a wide range of materials. Using oil paint as medium, the artist is able to illustrate the reflection of light on metallic surfaces, a critical device for successfully differentiating metal from glass. A close view of the painting reveals that the reflections are tiny dots of white paint that blends in naturally with the rest of the image when viewed at a distance. Den Uyl’s depiction of glass also reveals a great deal of mastery, especially the half-empty glass on the right end of the table by showcasing it in three states; he illustrates the semi-transparent liquid within and contrasts the glass against the black cloth as well as the wall in the background, embodying three facets of glass in one. The sleek surfaces of these objects contrast with the pliability of the white linen, whose creases and folds are naturalistically conveyed. The Northern European style remains steadfast, but its pictorial content has shifted dramatically. During the 17th century, Calvinism became the dominant approach to Christian life in Northern Netherlands; as a result, little religious art were produced. Meanwhile, the Dutch economy enjoyed great prosperity due to Amsterdam’s rising importance in international trade and banking. This prompted the emergence of urban middle-class merchants and manufacturers, whose newfound wealth also promised political power...