Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Fish Market

Joachim Beuckelaer (Netherlandish, Antwerp 1533–1575 Antwerp)
Oil on Baltic oak
50 3/8 × 68 1/2 in. (128 × 174 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift and Bequest of George Blumenthal, by exchange, 2015
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 639
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 (see the latter’s Kitchen Scene, 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 Fernando Álavrez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba (1507–1582), known as the Grand Duke of Alba, in the Netherlands in 1567 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).[1] 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”.[2] Beuckelaer apparently collaborated with the leading portraitist, Antonio Mor, for whom he painted the draperies of figures,[3] and with Cornelis van Dalem, for whose landscape paintings he added the figures.[4] 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. Margreet Wolters has observed that Beuckelaer combined monogram and signature, as in The Met’s painting of 1568, only in his later works. This apparently coincided with Beuckelaer’s use of canvas as a support and the export of his paintings to locations where the monogram alone did not suffice for identifying authorship.[5] In addition, Beuckelaer used different spellings for both his first and last name. According to Wolters, the spelling for the signature in the Museum’s painting is a very common one.[6]

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.[7] Prominently signed, monogrammed, and dated 1568 at the lower left edge of the fishmonger’s wooden table, The Met’s painting boldly displays for the viewer its bounty from the sea. 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 (for example, The Adoration of the Magi, 11.143). 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.[8] Housewives and maids line up, waiting patiently to buy fish for their midday 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 are remarkably modern in their sensibility.

The study of the painting with infrared reflectography has revealed more details about Beuckelaer’s working procedures (see Michael Gallagher’s Technical Notes and additional images). The lively execution of the underdrawing in a dry medium (see Additional Images, fig. 1) shows the shifts and changes of a developing concept, in particular in the right arm and hand of the fish monger and right arm and hands of the housewife in the red jacket. The housewife in a red jacket at the right originally glanced off to her left, but this was changed in the final paint layers where she meets the apprehensive gaze of the fishmonger. In an apparent attempt to produce greater depth in the composition, Beuckelaer replaced two larger figures in the background in the underdrawing with three smaller ones in the painted layers. Notable as well is the color notation “groen” for green on the sleeve of the fishmonger. Beuckelaer frequently used color notations in his paintings[9], and this one may refer to the adjacent vest, probably a copper green pigment that has turned brown. Although Beuckelaer often followed his color notations, deviations from the underdrawing to the painted layers have been observed.[10]

The popularity of the fish market scenes led Beuckelaer, as well as his workshop and followers, to produce variants that rearranged the figures and motifs of the composition. The Fish Market in the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, Belgium (see Additional Images, fig. 2), for example, reverses the position of the fishmonger and the housewife, thereby also subtly shifting the emphasis and meaning of the painting.

The Subject: Unlike Beuckelaer’s earlier treatment of kitchen and market scenes, The Met’s painting 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.[11] Both this event and developing local warfare with the arrival of Fernando Álavrez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba in the Netherlands in 1567, at the inception of the Eighty Years’ War, 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.[12] Increasingly, the market and kitchen scenes were filled with erotic content and indecorous innuendo, expressing punning references to sexual activities. Günter Irmscher 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.[13] 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 De officiis into Dutch in 1561, wherein one reads of “the most contemptible occupations that serve the appetites, such as fishmongers, butchers, cooks, pastry cooks, perfume-sellers, dancers, and all manner of gamesters”.[14] 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 Met’s 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 (Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht [see Additional Images, fig. 2]; 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 Museum’s 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, and an open pot often represented a woman’s pudendum.[15] Here, with hands resolutely folded over her open pot, the lady returns the fishmonger’s gaze, but is clearly unreceptive to any untoward advances from him.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2015; updated 2017]

[1] Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, from the first edition of Het Schilder-boeck, Haarlem (1603-1604), trans. and ed. Hessel Miedema, Doornspijk, 6 vols., 1994–99, vol. 1: Text of Lives; vol. 4: Commentary.
[2] Van Mander 1604, fol. 238r, lines 29–34; Miedema 1994, vol. 1, p. 210.
[3] Van Mander 1604, fol. 238v, lines 21–22; Miedema 1994, vol. 1, p. 213.
[4] Van Mander 1604, fol. 269r, lines 9–11; Miedema 1994, vol. 1, p. 334.
[5] Paul Verbraeken, ed., Joachim Beuckelaer: het markt- en keukenstuk in de Nederlanden 1550–1650, exh. cat., Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, 1986–87, p. 11; Margaretha Johanna Gerarda Wolters, “Met kool en crijt” De Functie van de ondertekening in de schilderijen van Joachim Beuckelaer, Ph.D. diss. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2011, p. 294.
[6] Margreet Wolters email to Maryan Ainsworth, 4/5/16, European Paintings curatorial files.
[7] Verbraeken 1986–87, no. 17.
[8] On Beuckelaer’s use of Serlio’s woodcuts as models, see Margreet Wolters, “Creativity and Efficiency: Aspects of Joachim Beuckelaer’s Use of Patterns and Models,” in Making and Marketing, Studies of the Painting Process in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Netherlandish Workshops, ed. by Molly Faries, Turnhout, 2006, pp. 164–73.
[9] Ibid., pp. 162, 164, 166.
[10] Margreet Wolters email to Maryan Ainsworth, 4/5/16, European Paintings curatorial files.
[11] See Elizabeth Alice Honig, Painting & the Market in Early Modern Antwerp, New Haven, 1998, pp. 53–99.
[12] Görel Cavalli-Björkman, “A Fishmarket by Joachim Beuckelaer,” Konsthistorisk tidskrift 55, no. 3 (1986), pp. 115–21.
[13] Günter Irmscher,"Ministrae voluptatum: Stoicizing Ethics in the Market and Kitchen Scenes of Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer,” Simiolus 16 (1986), pp. 219–32.
[14] Ibid., p. 221.
[15] 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.
Support: The large panel support is constructed from five planks of Baltic oak, the grain running horizontally along the longest dimension in the usual manner. In general, the support is in excellent condition. The panel has taken on a slight convex warp—slightly more pronounced at the top. This has been accommodated in the present frame. Thankfully, the panel itself has escaped the application of a cradle or other major intervention and the original marks from the woodworking tools are still very much in evidence on the reverse. These include a woodsman’s mark on the right-hand side of the top plank—the notation that was used to ensure a laborer was correctly paid for the trees he had felled and split.

There is a raised, unpainted barb on the left and right sides of the panel suggesting that the support was secured with two temporary cross-grain, perimeter battens to prevent the panel warping during the application of the aqueous ground layer. Any potential warp would only take place across the grain and so there would have been no need to limit the panel’s movement at the top and bottom. It would appear that these battens also remained in place during the painting process.

Ground: The ground appears to be composed principally of chalk and animal glue.[1] A high proportion of lead, identified during XRF analysis, together with broad brushstrokes that underlie the paint layers but which are quite independent of the forms described in the composition, suggest the presence of an overall, thin, lead white imprimatura, which would have helped seal the surface of the chalk ground. Evidently, penetration by the overlying oil medium has, over time, yellowed the ground layer somewhat. This is partially visible in the more thinly painted areas of the whole fish and fish steaks, in the sky and portions of the masonry. Overall, the tone of the painting is probably a little warmer than originally intended.

Underdrawing: The free and assured preparatory underdrawing, revealed by infrared reflectography (IRR), was executed in a dry medium. In general, the limited pentimenti suggest that the overall composition—the disposition of the figures, architectural features and the fish—had been preplanned. The drawing style is bold, energetic and rhythmic. The outlines and indications of facial features and details of costume are particularly loose and a number of significant changes were made as the composition and theme evolved. For example, the position of the fishmonger’s arm and cleaver was originally drawn further to the right and then moved back away from the piece of salmon he is presumably about to slice. This is the only figure where IRR revealed a color notation: "groen" (green) in his sleeve, which in the end was actually painted in a plum hue. The woman who is the object of his lascivious gaze was also changed: her left elbow initially rested on the edge of the large round wooden platter—before the decision was made to cover it with the metal pail containing a live fish—and her hands covered a much smaller pot. Her own gaze was also revised—from looking out to the onlooker to directly confronting the fishmonger. Two larger-scale figures were summarily indicated behind the woman in the hat glancing to the right but were replaced at the painting stage with the smaller-scaled trio who help create a sense of space and recession.

Paint Layer—Condition: The paint layer is in excellent condition. Minor flake losses are confined to the immediate vicinity of the panel joins and along an 11-inch diagonal scratch, which runs down to the right, just below the fishmonger’s right hand. There is some evidence of a little abrasion in the thinly applied dark tones of the fish but overall the painting is characterized by the very good state of preservation of these areas that are typically vulnerable to injudicious cleaning.

There have been several natural changes to the appearance of the painting. Due to the penetration of oil into the ground and the yellowing of the medium throughout, it is probably considerably warmer in tone than when it was first painted. The paint has also become more transparent and so some of the bolder blocking-in of forms in the figures as well as changes to contours and overlapping forms are now more evident. The organic red lake component in the paint layer has faded and is consequently much less intense, whilst the smalt blue has lost most of its hue. All four of these changes impact the present appearance of the confident young woman who lays her basket on the counter to the right of the fishmonger. Another color that has radically changed is the copper-based green, which has oxidized to a dark brown in the fishmonger’s jerkin.

Some of the open quality of the broader brushwork may now be a little more exaggerated. The medium-rich dark tones have in many places developed minute, drying fissures over time, making certain stokes appear less dark, or less opaque and solid. Slightly more pronounced drying cracks in the blacks and browns are limited to areas where there is a particularly thick build-up of paint, usually due to overlaps caused by pentimenti.

Paint Layer—Technique:The handling is assured, simple and painterly, using a palette of lead white, black, earth tones, vermillion, iron oxide red and red lake, lead-tin yellow, copper-based green and smalt and azurite.

There is a logical and practical build-up throughout the composition. For example, the main forms of the masonry were first blocked-in tonally, the brushwork purposefully broad and open in order to animate the surface. Over these blocked-in forms wriggling strokes and hatched, abbreviated lines were added to suggest the texture of the roughly hewn stone and the structure of the brick arches. This second phase appears to have been added relatively rapidly, in one process.

Throughout the composition, the artist used his brushwork with a very graphic and intuitive touch to describe form, allowing breaks in the stroke or variations in thickness to become an intentional part of depicting a particular object or texture such as the wooden tables, baskets and fish. The fish are truly a tour de force of the exuberant application and manipulation of paint to describe gleaming, complex surface patterns and textures. The forms of the whole fish were first laid in with an almost grisaille-like, monochrome painting. Blended, close-toned passages suggest smooth curved forms that were then worked over with loose crisscrossing strokes of black and grey and chattering, staccato dabs of cream and white, perfectly capturing the wet gleam of the fresh catch but without sacrificing the authenticity of the actual paint. There is a marvelous contrast between the rich coral-colored steaks of salmon—the vermillion-rich paint worked wet-in-wet to suggest the complex structures of the cross-sections of fish—with the thick silvery-grey toned skin.

The painterly abbreviations and busy textures of the masonry, fish and wooden and metal surfaces find a pleasing balance in the broad, simple forms of the garments. Again, there is evidence of a great deal of wet-in-wet application of paint but the color palette was kept simple: a base hue developed with a lighter tone and shadows. Much of the modelling in the fishmonger’s sleeve was achieved by the thickness of the first, rather open brushing-in of the base color, curving, curling strokes immediately beginning to create the volume of folds, which were subsequently anchored and reinforced in a second phase by the application of highlights and shadows.

The figures were partially kept in reserve following the underdrawing but there are significant shifts in the contours, with associated overlaps throughout, and they were painted with an assurance and energy that suggests a certain joie de vivre. In the modelling of the faces the same type of monotone, grisaille-like approach to building up form was employed. Highlights were frequently applied and blended in quite a broad fashion, then further details of eyes, nose, mouth and wrinkles were added. Much of this was achieved wet-in-wet. The fluid, rhythmic handling of the background figures gives them an almost modernist appearance and urgency. There appears to have been less concern with a precise depiction of a secondary detail than with capturing the spirit and energy of the scene, the daily activities and interaction, as well as with serving a formal purpose in the balance of the composition, which is highly self-conscious throughout.

[Michael Gallagher 2016]

[1] The characterization of the ground is based on analysis using a Bruker Tracer handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, (15 kV, 28 mA and acquisition time of 20 seconds) together with examination under the stereo microscope. The same procedure was also used to draw reasonable assumptions regarding pigment identification.
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.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2014–2016." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 74 (Fall 2016), p. 34, ill. (color).

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