Still lifes have always been a very popular painting subject, and they were an extremely popular specialization in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Dutch Golden Age artists such as Willem Claez Heda and Jan Jansz van de Velde created highly finished pictures, showcasing their immense talent while fitting in a bit of a lesson in moderation, something that hits close to home for those starting their healthy New Year’s resolutions. Heda was born and worked in Haarlem, a city in the Netherlands. He was well known for his still lifes, many of which contained a lemon, usually one of the only objects with distinct color in his mainly monochromatic works. Heda’s talent was significant, and his 1634 work, Still Life with oysters, a rummer, a lemon and a silver bowl shows his skill for not only arranging balanced compositions but also the delicate and highly-detailed execution in oil paints. This work is arranged at a very low vantage point, as if the viewer is right in front of it, making it familiar and welcoming. The balanced composition is comprised of a plate of oysters, a half-full wine glass, pieces of a broken wine glass, a turned over, ornately decorated drinking glass, and in the front, a plate with a partially sliced lemon. Here, as in many of his and his contemporaries’ works, the lemon can be seen as a symbol of moderation—though the lemon is sweet smelling, it tastes sour, and effort should be made at self-restraint, both in life but also the pleasures associated with food and drink.
This message of moderation and a very similar subject matter can be seen in Jan van de Velde’s work Still Life with tall beer glass, painted in 1647. Also working in Haarlem, van de Velde came from a family of accomplished Dutch artists. This work is a bit lighter and looser in arrangement: the viewer is presented with a table laid with a white tablecloth, a tall, partially-full beer glass, a plate of lemons, an overturned drinking jug, and the remains of oysters and tobacco. Here, van de
Velde doesn’t exactly beat around the bush when he reminds us to be mindful of temptation. While he is certainly influenced by Heda’s work (and other popular works of the time), van de Velde makes this arrangement a bit more casual and cluttered, looking more like a forgotten table scene, than Heda’s earlier, more thoughtful grouping.
While these lemon squares may be artfully arranged, there is no reason to display any moderation here. These tiny squares are chock-full of antioxidants and vitamin C, and just what the diet-doctor ordered for a happy and healthy 2014!
½ stick unsalted butter
1/8 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1 tablespoon cornstarch
pinch of salt
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350° and gather the crust ingredients. In a medium-sized bowl, cream the butter until light and fluffy, a couple of minutes. Add in the sugar, salt and vanilla, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the egg and the flour, mixing until completely blended. Since this mixture is so dry, you may need to crumble the mixture with your hands to really combine to a pebble-like consistency.
Spray an 8 x 8 in. baking pan with cooking spray, and press the crumbly crust mixture into the bottom of the pan. Press down as evenly as possible, and prick the dough all over with a fork. Bake for about 8 minutes, and let cool a little bit while you make the filling ingredients. Don’t turn the oven off!
To make the filling, whisk together all of the filling ingredients in a medium-sized bowl (you can use the dirty one from the crust if you like!). Pour the mixture over the cooling crust, and stick back in the oven for about 25-30 minutes, until the edges are browned and the top looks like it has set. Let cool completely (the longer the better), about an hour, and then sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar, and cut into squares.
Recipe adapted from Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion
Featured art: Willem Claes Heda, Still life with oysters, a rummer, a lemon and a silver bowl, 1634, oil on panel
Jan Jansz van de Velde, Still life with tall beer glass, 1647, oil on panel