Dishes with Oysters, Fruit and Wine by Osias Beert (source: National Gallery of Art)

I saw this painting, Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine, a painting by Osias Beert the Elder, on a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art in DC. It is the second Beert I have seen, Basket of Flowers is the other. Some of Beert’s work is said to be allegorical; Basket of Flowers has allegorical references, for example, which might require specialized knowledge to grasp. But Dishes isn’t complicated. It is what it shows: the richness of the life of the wealthy burghers of Beert’s time.

When Dishes is discussed, the oysters usually take center stage. From the description on the National Gallery site:

The eleven opened oysters arranged upon the pewter plate are striking examples of this realism: their amorphous forms appear to be so liquid that one can almost imagine the oysters’ easily slipping from their pearly white shells.

And down one’s throat, preferably with a squirt of lemon juice and maybe a dusting of pepper. Indeed they are lovely; here is a detail; I assure you it barely does the painting justice.

Compare the oysters with this detail of a Carribean shell. On close inspection, the shell looks as edible as the oysters, it could as easily be a sugar candy from the kitchens of The Food Channel as the calcified remains of a crustacean. And one more image, a Venetian glass filled with wine. In the museum, this shape glows with a promise of nectar.

Beert picked out each element in this painting, and placed it just so, each oyster is in a specific place, the wine glasses and the Ming Dynasty bowls of fruit and nuts are each in their position. I imagine him moving each piece around, and moving each almond into place, moving the tendrils of vine that hold the raisins into this very position, and checking the lighting on the sugar candies. I understand the "still" part of still life. Each piece is fixed where it is.

I wonder how long it took him to get things just so. I wonder how long he stared at that shell, hours perhaps, so he could feel its strength and its colors through his brush to the panel of wood. It got me to thinking about time. The hours of observation, the hours of arranging, the hours of painting, all to show a single instant of time. The time I have spent thinking about that painting. The notion that a still life is wholly artificial, an arrangement that pleased the artist. The context of a still life, the moment in time it shows, is the cessation of the artist’s arrangements of the models, which begins with a table, bowls and dishes, fruit, candies, nuts, bread, crustaceans, oysters, each moved into position, painted, and then moved again, or eaten, maybe one dish at a time, maybe several. They come into position, are painted, and disappear. Like life.