Life in a Fruit Bowl

Life in a Fruit Bowl

Article by Anders E. Johnson

Jacob van Hulsdonck, born in Antwerp, was a still life painter from the early 1600s. He was an exquisite artist who focused mainly on painting fruit bowls, flowers, and banquet-style masterpieces. In one of his most well-known pieces, a painting titled Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and Pomegranate, each and every detail found within, speaks for itself.

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate
Jacob van Hulsdonck (Flemish, 1582 – 1647)
about 1620 – 1640
Oil on panel, 41.9 × 49.5 cm (16 1/2 × 19 1/2 in.)

Let us feast our eyes upon this brilliant work of art and delve into what beckons our artistic senses. Seen from a higher perspective on a wooden table, sits a Chinese ceramic bowl from the Wan-Li period of the Ming dynasty. This beautifully painted ceramic basin contains a tasteful assortment of popular citrus fruits of the era. Some are cut while others remain untouched. Such a composition reminds us of life. There are some mysteries which we unravel, much like the sweet pomegranate and bitter lemon. The course of our life likewise contains sweet and bitter moments which we open and partake of, from blissful success to tragedies which we dare not even think to lay a finger on.

Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Pomegranate

Hulsdonk has used a palate of vibrate and dull colors to illustrate the different aspects of life. The composition of the painting at whole is harmoniously aligned in a pyramidal shape. His work almost whispers into our ears, reminding us that each passing moment either possesses a bright frolicking warm joy, or a dark and melancholic calamity. The beautiful brush strokes which the artist employed enhance each and every detail:


  • fruits with fresh dewdrops and hard leathery skins with divots
  • orange blossoms which seem to emit their sweet aroma of citrus
  • the wooden table with its smooth sanded long-grained texture
  • the static housefly that sits until it can busily buzz from fruit to fruit sampling each juice as it goes
  • the nocturnal moth which flew in through an open window only to get a glimpse of a rare colorful arrangement never seen at night
  • and lastly, the ceramic bowl carefully painted with Dutch blue Asian motifs, all of which are painted with ardency and finesse. The shallowness as well as depth of the colors is composed harmoniously to perfection.

Although this painting has striking detail and clearly displays the work of a true old master, there are a few “mishaps” that reveal some of the artist’s skills and methods of applying oils.

Life-in-a-Fruit-BowlOne example of this can be seen when viewing the painting closer.

Here, we can see a faint surfacing of what was to be another orange or lemon leaf.

However, Hulsdonk carefully applied translucent layers of brown, creating a glazing effect over the leaf; leaving a ghost leaf-like remnant.

Life-in-a-Fruit-BowlThe second example is seen in the lemon near the lower left-side corner of the painting.

Here there lies evidence of a previous lemon in a higher and longer position. The artist here has carefully blended a portion of the old lemon and painted a different perspective of it in another layer.

To the right and top of the fruit there are visible signs of brown glazes which have been applied over it to cover the layer. It can only be, therefore, concluded, that Hulsdonck’s detail comes from the patient process of applying various layers of glazes.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and Pomegranates, is truly a masterpiece which speaks of intensity and depth. The gradual shift of colors from greens to yellows of the lemon placed atop a bowl is like a bright day after a gloomy night. Sometimes in life, bitterness and darkness seem to be unending, but then eventually the sun rises and shines her glistening rays across the landscape to brighten our world.

Every element of the painting is exceptional, which mere words cannot do justice with. Through his painting, he explains how short life is and that it keeps no room for criticism and churlishness. Many things will happen unexpectedly beyond our ideas, but that is the sheer artistry of it. In this short period of life, we only care to understand what we want to, while the rest stays disregarded. Certainly anyone appreciating Hulsdonk’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and Pomegranates will by no means leave without pondering such realities.

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