Botticelli to Van Gogh

Stop 5 of 14

Oil of painting of a cluttered dining table featuring a lobster on a  porcelain platter.

Willem Claesz Heda
Still Life with a Lobster

Creation date: 1650–59

Willem Claesz Heda. Still Life with a Lobster. 1650–59. © The National Gallery, London. Presented by Frederick John Nettlefold, 1947


Relatively little is known about the still-life painter Willem Claesz Heda other than that he was born in Haarlem and was the son of an architect. His maternal uncle and, later, his son were also painters, so clearly an artistic streak ran in his family.

Like many Dutch artists of the period, he specialised in a particular genre of painting rather than trying to master a range of styles. Heda’s speciality was still life and he produced nothing else. He became one of the foremost still-life painters of the early seventeenth century, creating beautifully arranged breakfast pieces handled in muted colours. This painting is dominated by subdued browns, greens and yellows.

A ‘breakfast piece’ or ontbijtje is a type of still life where the focus is food rather than ornaments or natural specimens. These paintings often include elaborate tableware or a partially consumed meal. Here, a seemingly casual grouping of glasses and dishes of food on a table looks as if it has just been abandoned.

Heda’s compositions accurately capture the textures of various objects, particularly the reflective quality of highly polished glass. Here, you can see a window reflected in the bulbous shape of the large glass at the centre of the composition. This was a common device seen in still life of the period and was used to suggest the world beyond the display before us.

Another common inclusion in Heda’s painting is a white crumpled tablecloth on which the scene is staged. As his career progressed, the complexity of the composition developed. As the National Gallery, London’s curator Bart Cornelis describes: “a grandeur gradually took over from the simplicity of his earlier paintings”. The most eye‑catching item here is the gold goblet with a Roman warrior or deity on top. Heda creates a textural juxtaposition between its solid form and the fragile tall flute glass.

In addition to his mastery of reflection and texture, in this painting Heda demonstrates his skill at foreshortening. The two pewter plates project over the edge of the table and a knife sits across the top of the one in the centre.

When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to Van Dyck and British portraiture to continue your audio tour.

Johann Sebastian Bach, The Art of Fugue, BWV1080: Contrapunctus IV, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (violin & director)

Music selected by ABC Classic