Signed and dated 1568, this masterfully composed view of a daily fish market represents the new genre of still-life painting, initiated by Joachim Beuckelaer and his teacher, Pieter Aertsen, who lived and worked in Antwerp. It was painted during the tumultuous times of the Iconoclasm (1566), which disrupted the art market and motivated a change from purely religious to more secular themes. Here the flourishing fish industry is celebrated through the display of the great bounty from the sea. Such pictures also increasingly embraced a moralizing subtext, warning against the excesses of food and sexual pleasures.
The Artist: Beuckelaer is best known today for his market scenes filled with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, poultry, meats, and fish, which were produced in the third quarter of the sixteenth century in Antwerp. These works heralded developments in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting, above all with the kitchen and market scenes of Joachim and Peter Wtewael (Kitchen Scene, MMA 06.288) and especially those of Frans Snyders. Beuckelaer’s canvas paintings were exported to northern Italy where they influenced the Cremona painter Vincenzo Campi, as well as the Bolognese artists Bartolomeo Passarotti and Annibale Carracci. They additionally fostered the taste in Spain for the early bodegones of Velázquez. The extraordinary examples that ended up in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples were likely acquired early on by the Duke of Alva through Margaret of Parma, Governor of The Netherlands (1559–67 and 1578–82).
Karel van Mander included a short entry on Joachim Beuckelaer in his Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, from the First Edition of the Schilder-boek (1603–1604) (trans. and ed. Hessel Miedema, Doornspijk, 6 vols., 1994–99, vol. 1: Text of Lives; vol. 4: Commentary). There we learn that he was trained by his uncle, Pieter Aertsen (1507/8–1575), who “made him develop the habit of painting everything after life: vegetables, fruit, meat, fowl, fish and suchlike things; by repeatedly doing this he became so sure in mixing his colours that in that respect he became one of the most excellent masters, executing his works with great skill, as it were without effort, so that they had a very fine appearance” (Van Mander 1604, fol. 238r, lines 29–34; Miedema 1994, vol. 1, p. 210). In 1560, Beuckelaer married Magdalena Schryvers, around the same time that he became a master in the painters’ guild, and they settled in Antwerp where Joachim spent his working life. His panel and canvas paintings largely fall between 1561 and his latest dated works of 1574. Around a dozen are signed, many are monogrammed, and most are dated. Beuckelaer apparently collaborated with the leading portraitist, Antonio Mor, for whom he painted the draperies of figures (Van Mander 1604, fol. 238v, lines 21–22), and with Cornelis van Dalem, for whose landscape paintings he added the figures (Van Mander 1604, fol. 269r, lines 9–11).
The Painting: Until recently, the Fish Market was only known through two copies that were published in a 1986 exhibition catalogue devoted to Joachim Beuckelaer (Ghent 1986–87). Prominently signed, monogrammed, and dated 1568 at the lower left edge of the fishmonger’s wooden table, the painting boldly displays its bounty from the sea for the viewer. It is a magnificent still life of salmon steaks and whole and cut cod being prepared by the elderly fishmonger, while carp, pike, and herring are artfully arranged on the round table, a wooden tray, and in a copper bowl at the right within reach of two discerning housewives. All is presented in dramatic close-up, a compositional strategy first developed in early sixteenth-century Antwerp painting by Quentin Metsys, among others. The scene is set in an idealized market square with architectural features (the classical archway and monumental square piers supporting it) inspired by Sebastiano Serlio’s Architettura, a treatise on architecture, several volumes of which had been published by the designer Pieter Coecke van Aelst in Antwerp in 1545. Housewives and maids line up, waiting patiently to buy fish for their mid-day meals, as workers passing through the archway in the background continue their routine exchange of full baskets of fresh fish from the quay for the ones emptied onto the tables at the market stalls.
It is a masterful composition dependent upon a geometric structure of strong verticals, horizontals, and diagonals formed by carefully placed fish and figures, and a lively arrangement of recurring square and round shapes. A rich palette of mauves, reds, and pinks is employed for the costumes of the figures and the flesh of the salmon. Beuckelaer’s animated, rapid brushwork and confident but spontaneous handling are precursors to the later prized execution of Flemish masters like Jordaens and Rubens. The extraordinary impasto passages and parallel hatching with the butt end of the brush that describe the shimmering skin of the pike at the lower right in an area of a test cleaning are remarkably modern in their sensibility.
The Subject: Unlike Beuckelaer’s earlier treatment of kitchen and market scenes, this one does not present a secondary biblical theme in the background, and instead is purely secular. The fact that Beuckelaer ceased the production of his theatrical-theological market scenes in 1566, the year of the great Iconoclasm, cannot be a coincidence (see Elizabeth Alice Honig, Painting & the Market in Early Modern Antwerp, New Haven, 1998, pp. 53–99). Both this event and developing local warfare with the arrival of the Duke of Alva in 1567 disrupted the art market and dictated a change in themes to those that more realistically accommodated buyers.
The popularity of fish market scenes locally in Flanders was in part tied to the growing importance of the fishing industry, especially in centers along the coast from Dunkirk to Scheveningen. Such pictures thus represented the livelihood and the source of wealth of their owners (Görel Cavalli-Björkman, “A Fishmarket by Joachim Beuckelaer,” Konsthistorisk tidskrift 55, no. 3 , pp. 115–21). Increasingly, the market and kitchen scenes were filled with erotic content and indecorous innuendo, expressing punning references to sexual activities. Günter Irmscher ("Ministrae voluptatum: Stoicizing Ethics in the Market and Kitchen Scenes of Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer,” Simiolus 16 , pp. 219–32) has discussed the probable moralizing subtext of such depictions that reflected the influence of the writings of classical authors, who were read for their ethical precepts. Cicero’s De officiis was especially popular and the spread of its contents was due mainly to Erasmus (1466–1536), who commissioned a compact version of the work in 1501, which appeared in subsequent editions printed in Antwerp. Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert (1522–1590), who like Erasmus was a moralist, translated Cicero’s De officiis into Dutch in 1561, wherein one reads of “the most contemptible occupations which serve the appetites, such as fishmongers, butchers, cooks, pastry cooks, perfume-sellers, dancers, and all manner of gamesters” (Irmscher 1986, p. 221). Links between food and sexual pleasures were repeatedly made in these writings, and accompanied by warnings against sensual appetites of all types in favor of moderation.
Although the Metropolitan painting at first does not appear to portray lewd content, to viewers at the time the succulent pink salmon steaks could have suggested obscene connotations. See, for example, the Fish Stall of 1568 (Musée de Strasbourg, and several other copies), where a fish seller hooks a salmon steak over his middle finger in an explicit gesture, while leering at the viewer. Understood in this context, it becomes clear why the old fishmonger in the Metropolitan painting, who directly handles the flesh of the salmon, so quizzically casts his eyes in the direction of the middle-aged housewife. As in the poem of the Bruges rederijker Anthonis de Roovere (active ca. 1482), a wine jar is compared to a lady’s private parts (Eric de Bryun and Jan op de Beeck, De Zotte Schilders. Moraalridders van het penseel rond Bosch, Bruegel en Brouwer, Ghent, 2003, pp. 106, 158–161), and an open pot often represented a woman’s pudendum. Here, with hands resolutely folded over her open pot, the lady is clearly unreceptive to any untoward advances from the fishmonger.
[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2015]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left, on table): Joaehim büekeleer / IB [in monogram] / 1568
private collection, Belgium (ca. 1935–2015; sold to Bijl-Van Urk); [Bijl-Van Urk B.V., Alkmaar, 2015; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16," December 12, 2016–March 26, 2017, no catalogue.