Still life with rummer
A fictionalized story from the life of Pieter Claesz 1597-1660
Pieter Claesz: Still life with rummer and a salt
One lens of his spectacles had a star-shaped crack along the edge. The dawn of Sirius, ruining his vision, closing off the afternoon he hoped to spend painting. Or at least adding tiny finishing touches to the small rectangle of a still life, on a board he only decided yesterday was very nearly complete. He needed eyes for that.
One side of his table, which she had thoughtfully covered in fresh newspaper, was laid with a tray and a flask wrapped in a length of waffle-weave cloth, cork cap still tightly wedged in. She was very attentive. The spoon was silver, but with a worn tip.
One window stood open, sash tilted, catch buffeted with what would soon become a stiff westerly. He gripped the spectacles, fingers whitening as he examined them. Down. Down, he rested a fist on the easel edge.
One more minute, and he would lose his patience. In, in; a deep breath expanded his lungs and bowed a tense diaphragm. His back was equally bowed, so he straightened – ahh – and took a step back. One step; a similar step had cracked his glasses. What they were doing on the rug by his left heel … why they were on the floor … what caused them to be in the wrong spot in the first place was enough to squeeze his eyes shut.
He would have to learn to ignore the crack. He was determined enough a man to look past such an obstacle. Besides, was there not a time when he could paint easily and well without glasses? He would ignore the star. If he could afford larger boards; if he could order stretched canvases, his work would be much easier, much more enjoyable. It would be heaven on earth to paint a subtle resemblance, a small but accurate self-portrait reflected on the side of a silver pitcher. Alas, he had neither silver nor wherewithal to work on such scale. It made him huff and pace.
He called for her from the top of the narrow steps. They were more like rungs than treads and risers. He heard her approach below, and could imagine her placing a foot on the first step. ‘Stop. Stop. Think of tomorrow. Can you hear me?’
‘Yes. What about tomorrow?’ Her voice was young, clear, full of a kind of desire to please. Her silence was patient; quite an unusual woman. Little irked her.
It was a strange coupling, this marriage to a woman young enough to be his daughter.
‘Tomorrow? A ride into Antwerp. Will David lend us the horse …?’
Her gasp was stifled but audible. ‘… and cart?’ She knew the answer, but still asked.
‘D’you want to come?’
There was a smile in her voice. ‘I always want to ride into town.’
‘So yes – we’ll need the cart. But we have no money.’
‘Mevrouw Maes paid me for my weaving. Eleven groten.’
He descended a few steps, excited now. ‘Eleven! Listen Theda, listen …’ It was his name for her. She had an ugly name he would not use.
‘You need something.’ It was not a question; she knew how to phrase things.
He spent a great deal of her weaving money on pigments, on linseed oil. On expensive stiff linens he would stretch on frames himself, and cover with dark pictures of books and skulls.
‘We should buy cheese, and ham, before we rush off to Antwerp on David’s cart to buy pigments, or a tortoise.’
He was a few steps above her head now. ‘I have a tortoise.’
The whiteness of her knuckles around the rickety handrail was plaintive. ‘Or another lobster.’ Was she not too young to act like his mother? Hah! She could never turn into his mother.
‘I’ve painted a lobster. But look!’
She looked up, her pretty round face and clear eyes tilted towards the hand that waved the damaged spectacles. ‘Pieter! You broke your glasses.’
‘I stood on one lens. They were on the rug!’
‘What were they doing on the floor?’ They spoke in synchrony, with the same inflections.
Theda broke into her high-pitched laugh. ‘We’re always doing that! We say the same words.’
‘Whole sentences together.’ He was captive to this intimacy. There was no escaping it. They were becoming two parts of the same being. It could be suffocating if he thought harder.
If he thought of that big curtained bed they constructed in the upper room, from timber brought up piece by piece, from old brocade curtains given by relatives; where the number of hand-stitched quilts was bewildering, where warmth and closeness were like nothing he ever experienced, he could not concentrate a moment longer.
Pieter dropped chin to chest. Defeated; he felt defeated by this extortion to money. It was one thing when he had his mother’s legacy. It was another now, doing everything with a young wife in the house. And she was looking buxom and inordinately shapely.
He was not held to ransom by Theda. She was mild and giving; but they had to eat. There was rent, money for gin, for raw wool she spun and wove. Everything was closing in. Close, close.
But everyone lived like that. All houses in Berchem were like theirs, leaning tightly together in narrow terraces, hard against each other, all with three rooms, one on top of the other, and staircases so narrow they were more like ladders.
‘The man will take days to grind you a lens.’
‘Yes. How much will it be?’
‘How would I know? A few groten.’
‘Pieter – let’s first get a bit of ham. I’ll order it from up the road.’
He nodded although she could not see. ‘All right, a small shoulder or a knuckle. Not a leg. Have we still got dried peas?’
‘Half a sack, and we’d better use the rest of the potatoes. But why are we standing on the stairs discussing food?’ She laughed.
A groan erupted from his chest.
‘You cannot paint without glasses, Pieter.’
‘You’re so impatient with yourself.’
‘I don’t put obstacles in front of myself! The world insists …’
‘ … eh, the world.’ A smile was once more in her voice. ‘It pits itself against you.’
‘When all I want to do …’
‘… is paint.’
His knees were now level with her nose.
‘Come. Sit near the stove. I’ll pour you the last of the ale.’ She tilted the big jug over a clay pickle jar. ‘There.’
‘It’s a good thing it was your glasses you trod on.’
‘Theda!’ He choked on the last of the ale. With a splutter he drew a hand across his mouth.
‘Well, we’ve broken so many things. Remember that glass? The one you drank from, before this pickle jar? Sole survivor of a set of fourteen rummers, you said. It’s gone now. Nothing can replace it. The man in Antwerp can grind you another lens, but he can never blow another glass like that one.’
‘Those rummers were my mother’s. That last one …’
‘I put it into at least half a dozen paintings.’
She took the empty jar and held it up to the window. ‘Look!’
‘Oh, Theda – it’s not like holding that old rummer up to the light at all. Don’t jest like that.’
‘Remember? Blown by some unknown glass smith, in Antwerp.’
‘No, no – more likely Essen, years ago.’
‘Three or four decades or more.’
‘The only memory of my parents’ table. The hams we had! The beer!’
‘Wine, even.’ Her face drew long and serious. ‘What happened, Pieter? How did we descend to this …?’
‘Let’s not discuss it now.’ Could she not realize how beautiful she looked, how plump? Did she not feel any different? If … how would they ever cope with another mouth to feed?
She opened the hot stove door and gingerly stirred red coals. With her other hand, she inserted two small sticks. ‘There’s that flask of broth upstairs. Don’t let it go cold.’
The steps creaked as he climbed back to the top, where the window let in breezes and grey light, both of which came from far away, from the river Schelde, from the docks at Antwerp, where stevedores leaned against towering cranes, smoking clay pipes, cursing the rain. They wore sacking off-cuts, with corners hooded over bony heads, printed flourmill names snaking down shoulders and sides. He thought of their slitted eyes and hoped against hope for word from the guild of St Luke.
One day, one day, he would be accepted into their fold. He still did not know what it might bring. A letter would come, would it not? Brought by a breathless boy, it would have stiff creases, and lie on the table until he summoned the courage to open it. What dreams.
Surely, some commissions would come from that dream, and they might afford to move to a house more fitting for an endorsed artist. But he had to keep his side of the bargain, and paint the commissions. More dreams. Altar pieces, portraits, and dozens of still lifes to appease the wealthy gentry of the cities of Flanders.
How many apples, vases, silver bowls and bunches of flowers had he painted so far? He was well adept at that sort of thing. How many more would he have to paint if he wanted to live graciously, with Theda wearing silk off the Antwerp ships? How many dry bony skulls with gaping eyes, to signify how everything – everyone – had to die?
The last vanitas he painted had a grey skull, a pile of old books, and that green glass rummer, painted from memory. There was a lettuce, a snail leaving a shimmering, glimmering trail on a leaf. There was also a brace of pheasants, with light still in their eyes. But death; death was everywhere, and in everything. Even in the splintered star of his ruined spectacles.
Light streamed in, creating a visual eruption of colour in the glass he held up to the window. Pieter laughed. There were another five, all skilfully hand-blown by a master in Ghent, who rivalled even the best Venetian glassworks. Each was etched, very finely indeed.
‘The lion of Flanders, rampant, on my glasses. Very fine.’
‘Oh, Pieter, what have you done?’
The artist spun round, beaming. ‘Are they not just beautiful, Theda?’
Her smile was a bit wan. Could she throw cold water over this joy?
‘Theda, my pretty – no more drinking out of pickle jars.’
‘I see that. I also see the ham. A huge leg.’
‘With a layer of fat on it fit for the king of Spain himself.’
Her face fell. ‘Hush about the king of Spain! So that’s what you hid in that crate on the cart. You could hardly contain yourself on the way home.’
‘Everything’s arrived home in one piece. No more worry, my sweet, my cabbage.’
‘Will the man grind your lens? Will your glasses be whole again? Will you see to paint?’
Pieter rose and danced around the room. It was a warm room, but tiny, and he soon elbowed the far wall, and hit a shoulder on the curve of the winding staircase.
‘Careful, you happy fool! What’s up? Surely it wasn’t the horse’s gait that has jollied you up so.’
‘Sit down.’ He poured her some ale, which sparkled in its new glass. ‘Drink.’
‘Drink, for we have reason.’
‘My darling, my rose, my Theda …’ He poked a careful finger at her waistband. ‘Listen – is your dress … are your shifts not feeling the slightest bit tighter?’
Realisation reddened her cheeks, but filled her eyes with trepidation. She raised a hand to her lips. ‘Oh.’
He knew what held back her delight; the extortion of money. The threat of penury. ‘So, you see?’ He raised his glass.
How could she celebrate? ‘Pieter, how much was the ham? Local ham is cheaper … What did you pay for the rummers? Beautiful glass, but…’
‘What will the man charge to grind your lens? Surely my eleven groten…’
‘Ah! Hah! Ha ha!’
‘Please, Theda, enjoy this moment with me. We … a baby … ha ha! We’ll call him Cornelis. No, No – Willem! No – Nicholaes. And he’ll paint even better than I can.’
She had to smile. It could very well be a girl. They would christen her … she had to think … yes, Veronika.
He looked at her through ruined spectacles, the left lens a star of misfortune, a brilliance of fractured light that hid half his eye. It could not screen his cheerfulness. Something happened in Antwerp.
‘It’s the guild of St Luke, see? They granted me membership.’
‘What!’ Her face lit up, tiny teeth happy pearls.
How glorious to see her happy. ‘I knew it would be good, but not this good. They sought me in Antwerp. And they found me, what’s more. Are you not glad your brother David was generous with horse and cart? Aren’t you glad my lens broke just when it did? On the way to the lens maker, I was accosted by Menheer Vanderpost in the middle of Green Square.’
‘Where was I?’
‘You went seeking lace to trim your bonnet, remember? It was good, Theda … better than I ever thought.’
Her sigh was a gust of westerly wind in the small room. ‘How good?’
‘How good is this membership … this painting commission going to be?’
‘They said we must move to Haarlem. And listen to this! I’m to paint a side altarpiece in the restored nave of the Waterstaatskerk. Not only that – two noblemen and their families are moving there from Ghent. They want new portraits. And after, who knows? There’ll be more.’
Theda’s eyes widened. ‘Really? Haarlem!’ She took one of the glasses and caressed the etched lion. Her fingers found the rough pontil mark on the base of the stem. She raised it to the light and saw a tiny air bubble caught in the rounded knop halfway down the stem. It was a fine rummer, and they had six. ‘So I need not scold you for these extravagant purchases, Pieter?’
The artist leaned forward and pecked a kiss onto her jaw. Once more, he placed his palm on her waistband. He returned the glass to the table, took their long much-sharpened knife, and carefully removed some of the rind from the ham, revealing rich fat. He sliced a sliver of ham. Spearing it on the point of the knife, he held it to his wife. ‘Eat! You can eat ham all day if you so please.’ He sliced a piece for himself.
‘What’s this about moving to Haarlem, then?’
He whipped the spectacles from his face. Solemn and wide-eyed, he chewed for a while. ‘We’re to rent the back house on a small alley, close to the restored chapel. It has a front room big enough for two babies, and a stove large enough to heat the entire city! I’m to paint all day, every day. I’ll receive an extraordinary number of florins.’
‘Florins! Gold florins?’ It was incredible.
They sat and gazed at each other in disbelief. Another sliver of ham for both was warranted, and two glasses were refilled with ale, colouring the etched lions to a fine gold hue.
‘So is a small jug of gin out of the question, my love?’
‘Entirely within reason.’
The light went from the sky. The evening’s rumble from the street rose and fell.
‘Why are we sitting in the dark, discussing …
‘ … gin and money?’
‘Money and gin?’
‘Let’s light candles …’
‘… two candles!’
They always did that, saying same words together.
‘We’re to have a child, then?’ Theda seemed confused but content.
‘You should know. D’you not feel sick or …’
‘Not in the least.’
He scratched the back of his head. ‘But you’re stouter. So when, do you think?’
She shook her head and swallowed her ham. ‘I don’t know. How should I know?’
‘Don’t you remember the last time you …’
‘ … perhaps around the time we broke the old rummer?’
‘Or when we had that heavy storm?’
She nodded. ‘When I set up our winter store of turnips? Perhaps it was then. Or just after?’
They lit candles, frugality now recklessly set aside. After a few minutes, they looked at each other through yellow light.
‘This is …’
‘… extravagant.’ She blew one out. There were only two new candles in the box on the wall. Luxury was one thing, stupidity another. It would be folly to over-spend.
‘You know those bony heads I paint?’
She nodded. ‘Skulls, Pieter. You paint skulls, after giving that mad woman so many groten to procure for you a cranium. Do you remember her fuss and bother and extreme secrecy? It was a drama, a drama and a filthy black sack, which stank, here on our street in the dead of night. Why does everything to do with death happen at night?’ Her hand rose to her mouth again. ‘Oh!’
Pieter’s hand rose too. ‘Oh indeed! Don’t mention death. We now have a new life to think about. Life, life.’ He spoke without conviction, to ward off misfortune. Would it be sacrilegious to cross himself? His right hand fluttered and fell.
She peered through the yellow halo of a candle. ‘There’s … there could be a lot to look forward to.’
‘What’ll happen first?’
He rose, whirled with a flourish, taking up one of the new glasses. ‘First, I’ll start a painting. A still life … life, d’you hear? My tortoise to one side, any fresh fruit you find at the market tomorrow, and this new glass right in the middle.’
‘Full of ale, Pieter?’
‘Full of gin, Theda – gin!’
Afterwards, she would start to pack for Haarlem.
© Rosanne Dingli 2018