Still life with Parrots
Jan Davidsz. De Heem (1606-1684).
Many still lives are bleak pictures, without inspiration, closed and without joy. There
are often only a few objects displayed, the pictures are exercises in style, or the
painter had no other meaning but to show his craftsmanship. Although colours may be
bright, especially for seventeenth century Dutch paintings, the background is often
brownish, quite vast and without interest. After all, although in most languages these
pictures are indeed called "still lives", they are called in French "Nature
Morte" or "dead nature".
We usually are at unease with these paintings. We have an impression of solitude, such as
we can feel when we wake up in an afternoon alone in a quiet house. We feel lost and
aching, without aim in life. Undefined fears take possession of our minds. These were the
feelings that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "La Nausée", the
existential fear, and the one emotion that was so hated and utterly refused by Europeans.
It was the loneliness and fate of the frail human being confronted with vast eternity.
The painting "Still Life with Parrots" also is supposed to be such a picture of
things dead, of life that was, of lifeless objects, things drawn artfully together either
to show the skill of the painter or to be an object of decoration. Yet this picture of Jan
Davidsz De Heem is something quite different, isnt it?
Life is crawling all over the place. The parrot is well alive though not flying; he
proudly guards and shows the exhibition. There are shells of sea life with contorted
forms, and dark green leaves reminiscent of a half-wild garden. There are apples and
citrus fruit, luscious grapes, and the menacingly long knives of a lobster. It is all a
feast for the eye and one easily believes the whole to live a life of its own. These
objects talk to us, as they are together. They talk of joy, of far countries; they make us
dream and wonder. We will enjoy a feast and while looking at them or eating them, we will
not be alone anymore. One object says, "I grew in an untended and wild orchard in
Holland". Another, "I stood with my sisters in a meadow in Spain". Yet
another, "I was crawling under a hundred fathoms of water". Or, "I am to be
found on the beaches of the South Seas, I open my interiors to you please come in
to find a mystery, a pearl, and a dream". "And I, the nut, am so small, but I am
the boss of it all, see: I climbed on a pedestal!" This is pure happiness in colours
The art of the painter is of course present. The objects are not just thrown together at
random. There is mathematics and geometry here, as good as in the best Piero della
Francesca. There is a hard line of sharp-angled objects going from down right to upper
left. One of the seashells in the lower right points to the lobster and the parrots
beak. This line is drawn from sea-life very deep (the shells) over the earth-things
(fruit) to air-life very high (the birds, the parrot) with the lobster as an animal
in-between. The lobster is an odd-man-out here. It should have been at the lower part of
the picture, not so high. And it peeks from behind the curtain. It has apparently escaped
from the design of the artist. It has a life of its own, it was not quite dead, and it has
crawled from where it should be, to another place. De Heem's painting really is alive. The
parrot is the deviation from structure that brings life. It is also the only creature that
Another line is at a right angle to the former. This line starts left, and goes to the
right. This is the soft line of small round things: citrus fruit, apples, round oysters on
a long oval plate that accentuates the direction. It goes from acid (citrus, oysters that
just ask for lime) to sweeter fruits (the grapes). So we have to look twice: once from the
big shells to the lobster and parrot, to the animal that hangs in the air biting a cut
round object, and then we follow the other, lush, soft round flesh citrus-grapes line.
Even the large golden vase is all made of round protruding rose buttons, eyes, or whatever
your imagination dictates you instantly after following the other round things. It makes
the vase also alive.
Most of the objects are open to you, not closed. They invite you to enter or to touch
them. They cry out you are not alone, we invite you amongst us. Touch us, feel us,
plunge your hands in us, penetrate us and wallow in us. The horn shells open their
mouths, the citrus is half undone and shows its juicy interior, the oysters are all ready
and moist, the melons show their red flesh inside until - following the first line always
- we can rest and hide in the green foliage. One can easily surmise very sexual meanings
in all this display of open flesh. The other line may then tell us of the angular, thorny
pains of sin that can follow.
The overall theme of de Heems picture is abundance. There is profusion above the
structure. The displayed fruit and objects have all been used in Dutch still lives for
their symbolism. Thus, the white and red grapes, with in between the peaches, are a
recurrent theme. The grapes generally are symbols of the union between Man and God.
Grapes need much tending and long maturation. The grapes are symbols of the virtue of
patience. The white grapes give white wine, which is drunk by the Catholic priest during
the Holy Mass liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. The red grapes pressed and their skins
added, become a liquid as red as the blood of Christ. The half-filled glass next to the
grapes, holding a wine, refers to the Eucharist. This idea is emphasised by the butterfly
near the glass. The butterfly is ready to fly and so lightly that it was a symbol of the
The peaches among the grapes were a symbol of truth in ancient iconography. A peach with
one leaf represented heart and tongue. Truth springs from the union of heart and tongue
G41 . Christs good message was a true message.
The grapes and peaches are on the left side next to a blue box on which stands another
wineglass. Blue was always the colour of heaven, of piety and of divine essence.
The pomegranates that are close also are a Christian symbol. They refer to the
Resurrection of Christ. The many seeds contained in its case are a symbol of the unity of
the many under one authority, the authority of the churchs clergy.
The lobster also has been cited as a symbol of the Resurrection, but most often it
represented extravagance and ephemeral pleasures.
Vases are symbols of smell, one of the five senses. A golden vase such as in de
Heems picture can refer to abundance. Its position close to the grapes and wineglass
can indicate a ciborium, used to contain the hosts of the Eucharist.
All the elements in this part of the picture thus refer to Christs sacrifice.
Symbolism continues in the tilted dish with the oysters. A tilted dish was used for
special meaning in Dutch paintings. It was for instance the main theme of a Roelof Koets
still life now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Orléans- France. De Heem used the theme in
other of his pictures, as for instance in a still life of the Louvre, Paris. The tilted
dish was an additional means to show more fruit in the still life. The tilted dish however
meant instability, moral degeneration. In de Heems picture the element is associated
with open fruit showing their opulent flesh. The oranges near the oysters are symbols of
sin. Oranges are often a replacement of the apples of original sin. The oysters themselves
are a symbol of lust and sexual desire. Oysters are shown frequently by Dutch painters in
genre scenes, for instance next to a man holding a womans breasts. Spices were
supposed to arouse sexually, a spice holder for pepper is near the oysters.
The dark, silver pitcher on the lower left is an attribute of Hebe, who was the handmaiden
of the Gods. Hebe personified temperance G41 . Thus, the pitcher can be understood as a
symbol of temperance. It contains the water to put out the fires of lust. The pitcher
symbolises sexual temperance.
The citrus fruit down from the oysters are unwound, representing the passing of time. This
feeling is strengthened by the empty seashells, which may indicate the emptiness of life.
Finally, the red damask tablecloth is withdrawn from one corner of the table to show a
dark mass of foliage. This may represent hell, a dark disorderly space into which an
immoral life leads.
Underneath we see a lamp. It is not lit, but Jesus referred to himself as the light in the
darkness. This light is extinguished here.
The upper part of the painting represents the virtues of a life according to Gods
word. Here all objects are reminiscent of Jesuss life. The lower part represents
lust and lechery, immorality.
The painting "Still life with Parrots" of de Heem does not just show abundance
of objects and forms. It contains dense symbolism. It seems to be almost an encyclopaedia
of spiritual symbols used in Dutch still lives of the seventeenth century. De Heem puts
all the symbols and meanings skilfully together in an ordered and yet natural manner. The
painting is all order beneath the confusion. It looks so simple, yet it has several hidden
meanings to what is a complex moral message. The five senses can be discerned in the
images. The parrots can represent hearing, the oysters represent taste, and the
protuberant forms of the golden vase can represent touch and all the luxuriant food, and a
symbol for sight. Wonderful smells are certainly in the air, and the prominent golden vase
was also an ancient attribute of smell G41 .
Dutch still lives most often were full of underlying moral meaning. They were then called
"Vanitas" still lives, which admonish the viewers to remember the transience of
life and the worthlessness of earthly pleasures. "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia
vanitas" is a phrase from the Ecclesiasticus book of the Bible, referring to
temperance and the passing of time. In the painting of de Heem the magnificently coloured
parrot looks with pity at a killed, dark parrot hanging head down and dead from the
ceiling. Thus, life is immediately linked to death. This idea is also emphasised by the
border of the table. Here is the end of the space of the scene, the end of life, and the
oyster dish dangerously slips off that space and time into dark oblivion.
Finally, the whole movement of symbols leads to the nut on the pedestal, just on the
border of the table. The outer, green case of nuts represented the flesh of Christ. The
hard shell of the nut was the wood of the cross. The kernel of the nut represented
Christs divine nature. The nut stands in de Heems painting between lust and
death. The nut has also been used as a symbol of female virginity. The breaking of the nut
was thought to represent the breaking of the hymn in marriage. The oysters also refer to
this image. In de Heems painting, the nut can either symbolise continued lust, or
the remembrance of Christ at the time of death, and the last redemption.
De Heem was Dutch, born in the town of Leiden in 1606, so he would be prone to some
moralising since he was brought up amidst the stern Protestant Holland environment. He
moved to Antwerp in 1635, and spent most of his career as a painter there, until he died
in 1684. Antwerp was then still an important port, but her golden days were over. The
worse times of the religious wars seemed past, but they had broken the city. Alexander
Farnese had conquered and taken the town in 1585 for the Catholic Spanish king. Most of
the Protestant clergymen had to leave after that or convert, and had indeed left the town.
With them, of course, went most of the wealth. Businessmen and merchants left the town for
Amsterdam, which would know from then on, through the whole of the seventeenth century, a
booming economy, and its Golden Age in arts.
The town of Antwerp was to be Roman Catholic. The flamboyant counter-reformation kind of
Catholicism prevailed. And while to the north of Antwerp the more austere Amsterdam
flourished with its newly found wealth brought by the Protestants that had fled from
Antwerp, the Brabant Antwerp was left between hope for better times and fear for worse.
The hope and fear you can find in both lines of the painting of de Heem. Worse was to
But the first three decades of the 1600s were still benign to Antwerp, and de Heem could
find all the exotic (exotic to Flanders and Brabant) fruit, birds, animals and objects
that are depicted here. De Heem could find still here wealthy burghers to buy his
paintings, as painters at all times looked for, and worked where the money was. The new
Catholic South Netherlands had both (still) the money, the tolerance and the joy of life
that a painter like de Heem needed to thrive on. He was not just an artist, but also an
excellent artisan, a skilled professional, who knew all the tricks of his profession. Such
as to build in delight of oysters and surprises like the lobster and the nut to discover.
De Heem was certainly not the only Antwerp artist in that period: the most famous Rubens
lived there from 1577 to 1640, Anthony van Dyck from 1599 to 1641, and Jacob Jordaens from
1593 to 1678. There were many, many others. Look at the dates. David Teniers lived from
1610 to 1690, Adam van Noort from 1562 to 1641, Marten Pepijn from1575 to1643. Abraham
Janssens lived from 1575 to 1632, Gerard Seghers from 1591 to 1651. Theodore Rombouts
lived from 1597 to 1637, Cornelis Schut from 1597 to 1655, Erasmus Quellin from 1607 to
1678. Theodore van Dulden lived from 1600 to 1669, Jan Boeckhorst from 1605 to 1668,
Thomas Bosschaert from 1613 to 1654, Abraham van Diepenbeeck from 1590 to 1675, Cornelis
de Vos from 1585 to 1651 and so many more. Many still life painters lived there also, such
as Frans Snijders, Daniel Seghers, Jacob van Es and others. Antwerp was a marvellous town
for painters, with many rich citizens avid for visual delight in their houses, always
ready to boast among each other and show off as true Brabanders with their acquisitions of
Antwerp, as Brussels, was in earlier centuries a part of the Duchy of Brabant. The last
Duchess of Brabant had died childless in the fourteenth century, and left her lands to the
Duke of Burgundy. The last Duchess of Burgundy then, Mary of Burgundy, had married the
Austrian prince Maximilian. This marriage would lead to an enormous empire that would
encompass in the seventeenth century the North and South Netherlands (with Flanders and
Brabant), the Austrian lands, as well as of course Spain with all its wealth in South
The Protestant Antwerp revolted to the Catholic King of this empire, but contrary to the
Northern Netherlands, it could not hold. The Brabant joyful spirit continued to live,
however. A Dutch writer, Gerbrand Bredero of Amsterdam, wrote in 1617 a novel called
"The Spanish Brabander Jerolimo", in which he brings mockingly on the scene a
boisterous, cantankerous Brabander. The rich and poor shared the same joy; you can find it
also represented in Pieter Bruegels paintings of Brabant village feasts. Despite the
war lost to the King of Spain, despite the loss of half of its population, humiliated and
castigated, the Antwerp Brabanders did not loose their joy. They continued to show off as
if they were the proudest and richest people of Europe.
Therefore this painting had to depict expensive fruit and rare animals. The lobsters are
always associated with luxury and extravagance. Citrus fruit certainly did not come cheap
in the Antwerp of the seventeenth century, and oysters were a luxury, just as they are now
in Paris, where they are still symbols of opulence and richness when you see them in the
stalls of the restaurants along the fancy boulevards. Parisians would be quite surprised
to find out that their favourite oysters were not one of their twentieth or at best
nineteenth centurys inventions, but were already on the plates of burghers of the
seventeenth century. By the way, in Antwerp today you find no open stalls with oysters.
The restaurants are full of mussels and French fries for the masses. And of course, our
contemporary clothes have lost the buoyancy of colours and different textiles of the
One can easily understand why John Ringling bought this painting in the 1920s. The John
and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is entirely dedicated to Baroque art. Ringling liked
Italian art, but also the Rubens, Jordaens and van Dyck paintings, and those of other
Antwerp masters. He liked the exuberance of Baroque art. The museum gives these pictures
the splendid vast rooms, which suit them so well. It is an enormous Italian Renaissance
villa, with two long wings, lined with vaults and columns, around fountains in a wide
patio garden. There even is a full-sized copy of Michelangelos David in the
courtyard. Ringling was a showman and collected some of the finest, most grandiose
paintings in the world. Among which this de Heem's "Still Life with Parrots".
The Baroque era appealed most to a person as of a character like John Ringling. He was a
partner in the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, maybe the most fabulous circus the
earth has ever seen, and you can still find his circus museum next to his art museum in
Sarasota, Florida. He built a Venetian villa close to the museum, and Mable Ringling had a
real Venetian gondola to make trips in Sarasota bay.
The Ringlings came to Sarasota because the Barnum and Bailey circus held its winter
quarter there. This tradition has been continued for four or five generations of circus
people now. Sarasota is the winter quarter of most of the independent circus people of the
United States of America. They remain in Sarasota for the three winter months with their
caravans, elephants and tigers. In the evening, they meet in their own tavern hall
"Show folks", where the walls are lined with memories and photographs of the
artists. There is even a circus school in Sarasota. The town has really remained the
circus capital of the world.
European intellectuals can be scandalised by the incongruous and odd display of
nouveau-riche fortune that John and Mable Ringling assembled in the Sarasota museums. They
may find this all "kitsch" art. But we cannot but admire the joy and the
self-confidence of the Ringlings, which would have appealed to the old Brabanders. The
Ringlings were certainly encouraged by their artistic environment. All this display
testifies to what circus people try to show: we can do many amazing things on this earth,
wherever we want, whenever we want. Dream, and your dream will come true. And dream also
of higher learning and higher art. So, Ringling brought back to the Unites States some of
the art that was as much his heritage as the heritage of contemporary intellectual
We should be grateful to John Ringling, and admire him for the wonderful museum built in
the town of the winter quarters of his circus.
As Robin Skynner and John Cleese remark in "Life and how to survive it" G27 ,
"a circus is a place of apparent madness where we can enjoy the excitement of seeing
wild animals, but circus people do know how to handle them." Baroque art and this
"Still Life with Parrots" are certainly like that. Baroque art waz the
"madness over the structure".
De Heem knew how to keep order in his own circus
well, except for the lobster.