Sweet as candy

Pieter Gallis (1633-1697) sure knew how to paint those plumb, succulent grapes! When you look at Still life with fruit (1673) you just know he adored grapes, obviously more than peach, melon or the suspiciously round and discoloured raspberries. These fruits didn’t quite receive the typical Dutch realism treatment of the painter; Gallis painted them more in a two dimensional way, with less vibrant colours, which makes them less lifelike.

The grapes got the royal realism treatment though. A part of their ‘realness’ is that Gallis clearly painted the foggy layer of natural yeast on the skin of the grapes. This yeast is enough to start the process of fermentation, which turns grape juice into the alcoholic beverage of wine. This is why wine-making dates back to 6.000 AD; it’s relatively easy to do.

So perhaps Gallis’s love of grapes actually had something to do with his love of wine. This drink would surely be on his table at the time. Gallis was a man of wealth; he painted as a hobby and earned his living as the director of a local bank. If you had money in those days, you’d drink wine, since it was much healthier than water, milk or the poor quality of beer that was around.

Candy for the rich

Still life with fruit by Gallis isn’t turned into a fruity wine for the Rijks Conserven, but into something else that makes life sweet: hard candy. This was another typical thing you could find in a rich man’s cupboard in those days. In the 17th century sugar cane was imported from plantations in the new world, which made sugar very expensive.

In royal courts, expensive sugar was used as a sweetener in dishes. They also liked to experiment and make their recipes more exclusive and luxurious, which led to the invention of new sweets like sponge fingers and sugar beans. And if you had money in the 17th century, you’d be following the überwealthy of the world and show you could compete. And with sugar, it would be as easy as buying expensive sugary sweets. So a man like Gallis would likely visit his local sweet shop to emphasize his wealth.

Sugar itself is seldom seen in paintings. But in the 17th century, artists started to refer to sugar by painting sugar bowls in their genre paintings and still lifes. These bowls were preferably made of precious porcelain, which would again hint at wealth and at eastern trading. But Gallis’s known body of work contains only thirty still lifes, and on these works there isn’t a sugar bowl or sugar in sight. Could it be because Gallis was more than happy with his plain, succulent grapes?

All of the Rijks Conserven, including the hard candy, are available at the webshop of the Rijksmuseum.

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