The Herring Season 2020 starts tomorrow June 12th and from that day on, the “Hollandse Nieuwe” (New Dutch Herring) can be eaten everywhere, mostly as a street-food snack with finely sliced onion and pickles. A whole herring is consumed raw and often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail, tilt your head back, and then eat the herring by lowering it into your mouth.
The painting above is a monochrome still life by Pieter Claesz. It’s a serene composition, symbolizing our “daily bread”. But in fact, this was for centuries a common breakfast meal indeed: a glass of beer, a herring and a piece of bread. On the painting hereunder, known as “The Cat’s Breakfast”, we see a woman of humble origin sharing the herring from her breakfast with a cat.
These herrings are caught in the North Sea between May and August, before the breeding season starts. Herrings at this time are unusually fat and rich in oils. The herrings are preserved at sea, by removing the gills and placing it in a salty brine, traditionally in oak casks.
The Dutch started fishing and trading herring more than 1,000 years ago. Much of Holland’s wealth and sea trade can be attributed to this fish. Part of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age is funded with the profits of the herring fishing industry. From the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is this beautiful small panel by Gotfried Schalcken, depicting a woman selling herrings. And Christian Couwenbergh portrayed himself by holding up a freshly preserved herring.
In this panel by Gerard Dou, an old woman and a young boy seem to be discussing the herring she holds in her right hand. It’s the fisher boy who delivered the oakwood cask with the freshly caught and preserved herrings, and it’s the old lady as shop owner who will start selling the fish.
Let’s have Sunday brunch 17th Century style! And that’s best done with Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch Golden Age painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He specialized in the genre of “banketjes” and “ontbijtjes” (banquets and breakfasts), and most of them in a monochrome manner. Not much known about his life, not even an exact date of birth or death. But his legacy can be seen in the important museums all over the world. Let’s have a closer look at the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And let’s find the hidden message in what seemingly is just a banquet still life painting.
This is the aftermath of a feast meal; a table filled with exotic food, luxurious tableware and precious glasses. The lemon and olives have been imported from the Mediterranean. The salt – expensive in those days – can been seen on a silver salt cellar. The mince pie, filled with meat and fruits and spices, is a dish for special occasions and on this painting has clearly been eaten already. A glass broke, the goblet fell over and the candle went out. But the message is shown exactly in the middle and in the front; it even sticks out of the painting right into our face. And that’s the piece of bread. The roll has not been touched. Bread in the Eucharistic meaning represents the body of Christ. Heda tells us that we should not overlook the Christian faith while being seduced by the pleasures and richness of food and earthly goods.
And here is another still life breakfast painting by Heda. It’s from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. On the table a ham, lemon, oysters, the salt on the silver salt cellar, precious vessels, Venetian glass and even a “nautilus cup”, made of the nautilus shell imported from the Far East. This painting shows the wealth of a rich merchant from the Dutch Golden Age. But also here, on the left side of the table, is that very modest, untouched, lonely piece of bread. All the richness on one side of the table and on the other side, at that pure white clean tablecloth, the power of the Christian faith, symbolized by a simple bread roll. I guess the owners of these paintings, those rich merchants in the 17th Century, liked to show off their wealth and their taste for international and exotic treasures, but they also wanted to show how modest and down-to-earth they were. It’s true Calvinist behavior; almost as an excuse for wealth and success.