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Dutch still-life masterpiece on show in UK for first time

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A “dazzling” rare Dutch masterpiece that has always been held in private collections has gone on public display for the first time in its history.

Banquet Still Life by Jan Davidsz de Heem will be on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for the next two years.

The importance of the painting was underlined by a temporary export bar placed on the work by the government last year when it came up for sale, uncleaned, for the first time in two centuries, valued at £6.1m. An export bar gives time for a public gallery or institution to try to raise funds to buy the work.

At the time, Stephen Parkinson, the arts minister, said: “This captivating painting is magnificent not just in size but also in its exquisite detail. De Heem’s enormous talent is evident in this rare piece.”

In the event, it was sold privately. The painting has since been cleaned for the first time by Martin Wyld, a former head of conservation at the National Gallery. It has now been lent to the Fitzwilliam so it can be seen by the public.

De Heem was one of the most important still-life painters of the 17th century. Banquet Still Life is rare within his body of work because of its monumental size; he typically painted smaller works.

The artist completed four paintings on this scale between 1640 and 1643. Together they established De Heem as the pre-eminent still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age and exemplified an emerging style of painting known as pronkstilleven, featuring ornate displays of sumptuous food and luxurious objects.

The government placed a temporary export bar on Banquet Still Life when it came up for sale in 2022. Photograph: Fitzwilliam Museum

Banquet Still Life depicts platters of exotic fruits, a large half-eaten pie, shellfish, Chinese porcelain, a lute and flutes, marble pillars and fine cloths, all conveying great wealth.

It is a “dazzling” painting, said Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam. “Anything but still, the picture celebrates life’s sensory pleasures – and the ways that they can be evoked by a brilliant painter.

“A marvellous disorder of food and drink, the possibility of music, a tumble of glittering treasure, De Heem is asking us to celebrate the world’s abundance even as he asks us to consider what’s really important in life. It’s a question that’s still profoundly relevant.”



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