Conservation and butter dishes

Restaurator Céline Talon werkt sinds dit voorjaar aan de conservatiebehandeling van het schilderij Hollands Ontbijt van Floris Van Schooten uit de collectie van het KMSKA. Ze blogt – in het Engels – over wat ze intussen ontdekt heeft. 

Spring 2013 saw the start of the conservation treatment of a wonderful still-life painting by Floris Gerritszoon van Schooten (Amsterdam 1585/90 – Haarlem 1656) entitled “Hollands Ontbijt” (Dutch Breakfast) and dating from c.1620. The paint surface was covered in several thick layers of yellowed varnish. The oldest layer had turned dark brown and become very irregular, as previous cleaning had left large stripes of oxidized varnish. The overall effect was one of looking at the painting through a very dirty window…

Floris Gerritszoon van Schooten, Hollands Ontbijt, KMSKA (before treatment)

Floris Gerritszoon van Schooten, Hollands Ontbijt, KMSKA (before treatment)

As soon as the cleaning treatment got underway, it became apparent that, under the varnish, the paint layer was in pristine condition save for some local abrasion, again due to excessive previous cleaning.

Floris Gerritszoon van Schooten, Hollands Ontbijt, KMSKA (during the varnish cleaning treatment)

Floris Gerritszoon van Schooten, Hollands Ontbijt, KMSKA (during the varnish cleaning treatment)

During the treatment, one particular element in the composition drew our attention: the butter dish at the centre of the table. Decorated in a pattern of blue and white, it initially looked very much like the kind of plate one would expect to encounter in a food display in a 17th-century Dutch still-life. Like the one from the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam you can see below.

Stilleven met kazen, Floris Claesz. van Dijck, ca. 1615, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Stilleven met kazen, Floris Claesz. van Dijck, ca. 1615, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

However, whereas the kraak porcelain or Delftware depicted in such still-lifes is typically dazzlingly white and glossy, the dish in van Schooten’s painting has a surprisingly yellowish appearance, even after cleaning… Closer scrutiny revealed that a reddish-brown glaze layer had been applied on the surface of the bowl. But for what purpose?

Detail of the butter dish in Van Schooten's painting

Detail of the butter dish in Van Schooten’s painting

To a 17th-century connoisseur, one of the main sources of joy in a still-life painting was the masterly representation of different materials and textures,  – which at once provided artists with an opportunity to demonstrate their skills. So perhaps there is a connection between this rather unusual glaze and the material of the butter dish…


As it happens, J.B. Hochstrasser, in her essay on Still-Life and Trade in the Golden Age (Yale University Press, 2007), discusses this very picture by Van Schooten and she specifically asserts that the butter dish is neither luxury kraak porcelain nor Delftware, but majolica. Majolica ceramics differs from Delftware in terms of both origin and technique. First developed by 16th-century Italian artists, it was soon copied by craftsmen in Northern Europe, not least in Antwerp. One of the most striking differences between majolica and either Deftware or Chinese porcelain lies in the colour of the material used: porcelain is bright white and Delftware is whitish pink, whereas majolica is made of red clay.

When the agitated political climate of the late 16th century caused many Flemish artists to seek refuge in the Northern Low Countries, they brought with them new skills, including the majolica technique. Haarlem – where Floris van Schooten lived and worked and which had a sizeable Flemish community – soon became an important ceramics production centre, which would only be outshone by Delft and its Hollants Porceleyn after 1630. Between 1600 and 1650, Haarlem boasted no fewer than 45 so-called plateelbakkers renowned for the quality of their majolica earthenware. Among them were artists such as Hans Bernaert Vierlegger (d. in 1621) and Willem Jansz. Verstraeten (active c.1625-1655)[1].

Bord van veelkleurig beschilderd majolica, anoniem, ca. 1600 - ca. 1625, Rijkmuseum Amsterdam

Bord van veelkleurig beschilderd majolica, anoniem, ca. 1600 – ca. 1625, Rijkmuseum Amsterdam

When kraak porcelain arrived on the scene, it was an instant success and ceramists from Haarlem soon began to imitate it using a white tin-based glaze and applying cobalt blue patterns. The Haarlem artists took some liberties with the decoration though: rather than strictly copying the Chinese designs, they incorporated Italian, Chinese and even Turkish Iznik influences, as can be seen in Van Schooten’s painting.

On the basis of the foregoing, we venture the hypothesis that the reddish-brown glaze covering the butter bowl in Van Schooten’s still-life is an attempt by the artist to capture the slightly reddish tinge of majolica… This would certainly tie in with the general meaning of Hollands Ontbijt, which consists in a display of typical local produce (cheese, bread, apples, …) combined into an ode to the Dutch way of life.

Met dank aan het Rijksmuseum Amsterdam voor de afbeeldingen van het Stilleven met kazen van Van Schooten en het bord van veelkleurig beschilderd majolica.

[1] Claire Dumortier, Céramique de la Renaissance à Anvers, ed. Amateur, 2002, p. 53


2 gedachtes over “Conservation and butter dishes

  1. I am afraid your analysis of the plate is wrong. Dutch majolica are usually made from light greyish/yellowish clay. The tin glazed front is usually very white.
    Further they are never painted on the back side, like the one in the painting. Majolica plates have only a transparent lead glaze on the back.
    The rim decoration visible, asymmetric with birds etc, is not in the Dutch style.
    I think the plate is probably from Portugal or Spain.
    The same plate can actually be seen in quite a few paintings by Van Schooten

    Tomas Helander

  2. Dear Mr. Helander,

    Thank you for your interest and your comment. First of all, I would like to emphasize that my blogpost is a hypothesis, not a definitive conclusion. This hypothesis ventures that the bowl depicted in the painting is an early Dutch imitation of Eastern porcelain, using a technique closer to Majolica than to Delft or Chinese techniques. I don’t think the Van Schooten bowl to be a pure Majolica, more a kind of “in-between-styles” production. Not being a ceramic specialist, I asked for some opinions of people who are before writing this small article and – according to these experts and the information I found – Portuguese/Spanish imitations of Chinese porcelain don’t have similar decorative patterns… The long flowers depicted on the rim seem to be more – distantly – related to Turkish decorations. If, however, you are aware of any interesting comparative objects that would add to the debate, I would be very happy to have a look at them!

    Yours sincerely,

    Céline Talon

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