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Fish Market
by Joachim Beuckelaer
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift and Bequest of George Blumenthal, by exchange, 2015
Episode 9 / 2016
First Look

These seemingly innocent depictions of routine life, however, are not devoid of deeper meaning..."

It is the eye-catching display of the bounty from the sea that initially captures our attention in Joachim Beuckelaer's Fish Market. Faithfully described and painted with exceptional verve are salmon, cod, carp, pike, and herring, which spill out into our space from their artful arrangement on tilted tables and in a shiny copper pot and stained wooden tray. The handling of certain passages, like the deft impasto brushstrokes indicating the slick, shimmering skin of the pike, herald the painterly effects of later centuries. The lively arrangement of the catch of the day is echoed by the bustling market where a fishmonger prepares for discriminating housewives their selections for the family repast.

This scene of everyday life may appear commonplace, but so much more is going on. Beuckelaer's painting, signed, monogrammed, and dated 1568, is among the earliest examples of an evolving category of Northern Renaissance painting. Such portrayals of everyday life, or genre scenes, rejected customary religious themes in favor of purely secular content–in this case, celebrating the growing importance of the fish industry in Flanders, in towns along the coast from Dunkirk to Scheveningen. However, this new genre not only proudly referenced a thriving economy; it also signaled a practical solution by artists to the obliteration of religious imagery dictated by the Iconoclasm that stormed through the Netherlands in 1566.

These seemingly innocent depictions of routine life, however, are not devoid of deeper meaning. They allude to a moralizing subtext, warning against excesses of food, drink, and sexual pleasures, as condemned by contemporary moralists such as Erasmus and Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert. Here the fishmonger, who prepares to cut a slice of the succulent, pink salmon, glances expectantly at the middle-aged housewife to his left. She, in turn, crosses her hands over an open pot, a symbol of her pudendum, resolutely indicating her unavailability.

Maryan Ainsworth
Department of European Paintings
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