My SAM Favorites: Beyeren Celebrates His Virtuosity and Capitalism In Banquet Still Life

Next time you're standing around eating cheese cubes at a First Thursday reception and someone asks what you're working on, tell them it's a piece overtly glorifying the wealth and social position of your patron. Can you imagine a motivation more contemptible, more craven, more unhip? Probably few genres are more alien to contemporary art-making sensibilities than the Dutch still lifes so popular during their 17th-century mercantile high noon: art specifically designed to advertise the success of capitalism, showing off the opulence of wealthy households and exotic foodstuffs shipped in from around the world. But even in a typical example like Abraham van Beyeren's Banquet Still Life (c. 1655), the desire to show off his technique seems even stronger. Gleefully delighting in his own virtuosity, van Beyeren paints glistening, light-dotted surfaces everywhere—garnetlike pomegranate seeds, gelatinous seafood, or unctuous beads of grease on a cooked fowl—contrasting them with other textures: a fuzzy peach, nubbly citrus skin, or deep velvet. He plays optical tricks, painting glassware to demonstrate how, with just a few hairline brushstrokes, he can distinguish a transparent object from whatever's seen through it, or a silver ewer in which just a faint ghost of a reflected figure can be seen. Sure, it's a celebration of the ruling class, but it's even more a celebration of himself. Perhaps rich people can buy this, he's telling us with unembarrassed panache, but only artists can do this. GAVIN BORCHERT

 
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