Banquet Piece with Ham, 1656
Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch, 1594–1680
Oil on canvas
44 × 60 in. (111.7 × 152.3 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond H. Goodrich

Habits of Mind

  • COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support

Writing about Still Lifes

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

• Determine sequence of activities needed to carry out a procedure.

•  Use elements of the writing process to write a procedural text.

•  Orally describe their own paintings using descriptive words, synonyms and antonyms




Language Arts



Connecting to the Work of Art

This still life shows a table in disarray.  The Dutch called a composition with bread, fish, and drinking vessels a “breakfast” still life.  Here the humble breakfast piece has been given a grand treatment:  the fish are oysters, the vessels are silver, and the lemon – rare in northern Europe at the time – attests to the wealth of Holland in the seventeenth century.  But the jumble of the table, as if the meal has been abandoned in a hurry, may suggest a symbolic meaning that the enjoyments of life are interrupted, perhaps by death, or put aside for higher ideals.


This still life combines realism and drama that is typical of much seventeenth-century art.  The artist carefully observes the many surfaces and textures - rough lemon peel, smooth glass, engraved silver, and subtle shadows in the folds of the cloth.  In the goblet at left, Heda even shows the reflection of a paned window.


The shaft of light against the plain background creates a dramatic mood.  The overturned blue-and-white bowl and silver goblet suggest precarious balance.  However, Heda stabilized the objects within a triangular composition with the tabletop at the base, and the rim of the tall, thick glass at the apex.  The subdued color scheme of grays, browns, and creamy whites is punctuated by the red ham, blue bowl, and yellow lemon.


Canvas was stretched over a wooden frame, then sealed with gesso, a gypsum and glue paste, to provide a smooth surface for this painting.  To make oil paint, the artist mixed pigments with pressed linseed oil from the flax plant.


Because oil paint dries slowly, Heda could blend adjacent areas of color to create subtle gradations that capture the effects of light on a range of textures.  For example, in the goblet at left, the thick paint of the highlights contrasts with the thin, evenly blended paint that depicts the clear, smooth glass surface.

Willem Heda was a painter active in the Dutch city of Haarlem in the middle of the seventeenth century.  Little is known of his early life and artistic training.  Heda specialized in still-life painting and is best known for banquet pieces, such as this, which show a table after a meal.


In the seventeenth century, Holland was the most prosperous nation in Europe, due

to its far-flung trading interests.  Dutch citizens were great art patrons, and artists produced a wealth of images of the countryside, people, and the Dutch way of life.


Although still life paintings existed in the ancient world, the rise of still life painting in Europe in the 16th and 17th century grew out of traditions in Christian art.  Fruit, flowers, and other objects that served as attributes of holy figures or Christian symbols, became the subject of independent paintings in the late 16th century.  The Dutch invented the term “still life” in the 17th century to describe paintings of food, flowers, and dead game.  In the Netherlands, artists specialized in specific kinds of still life painting, such as flower pieces, luxury still lifes, banquet scenes, the more humble breakfast still lifes, and more.  While Dutch still life paintings often celebrate the country’s wealth and world-wide trade, these paintings often also convey a moralizing message.  The rich food, drink, and vessels in Banquet Piece with Ham alludes to the ephemeral pleasures of the feast, as opposed to the lasting importance of spiritual values.


Curators are always researching the museum’s collection.  In the process, titles of works of art can change.  This work used to be called Still Life and is now titled Banquet Piece with Ham.


  • Create an inventory of all you see.

  • Categorize your inventory into serving pieces, food, and linens.

  • How would you characterize the arrangement of these?

  • Does the artist place the items in ways you would expect them to be placed?Why or why not?

  • With your eye, follow along the horizontal surface of the tabletop to its edge and then follow the tops of the serving ware up to the tall thin glass at the center and back down again to the other edge of the tabletop.Repeat.What type of implied shape do you notice?

  • How does that implied shape affect the perceived balance of this work of art?

  • What colors do you notice? What kind of mood do they illustrate? How?

  • Observe and describe the variety of textures portrayed.If you were able to touch surfaces like the lemon, glass, wood, cloth, and silver, what would they feel like?

  • How does the artist depict light falling upon these textures? What direction is the light coming from?

  • Look carefully at the glass goblet on the left.  How is light reflected in its surface?   What clue does the artist give you about other parts of the room?
  • Imagine Heda arranging objects for his still life.  Discuss the composition, focusing on the choice, placement, and contrast of shapes, textures, and colors.  Describe the mood and how the artist created that mood.


  • Survey and describe the food. How are the ham, lemon, and spices portrayed?

  • How would you describe the style of the glasses, knife, platters, pitcher, bowl, etc.?

  • Characterize the status of the people that may have sat around this table.Provide evidence from the work of art to support your inferences.

  • Hypothesize what might have happened to cause this table to be abandoned in such a disarray? Elaborate.

  • Who might be responsible for cleaning up the overturned pieces and leftover food?

  • This breakfast still life was painted in seventeenth century Netherlands during a period of worldwide trade and wealth.How does the presence of the lemon underscore this fact?

  • What might the value of the lemon be?Would that type of fruit be easily available to all people during the seventeenth century? Why or why not?

  • How does the lemon, lying peeled yet uneaten on the table, further your interpretation of the intended meaning of this work of art?

  • What affect might viewing this painting have on poor people living in seventeenth century Holland?

  • Are there bigger issues to explore here? How does this painting make a statement about the ways privileged people treat their possessions? In light of worldwide living conditions, would you consider yourself privileged?Why or why not?

  • What do you think the artist is trying to communicate about waste, affluence, and social justice? Elaborate.Could that relate to society today? Explain.

  • How does your breakfast table today compare with this breakfast scene? What might you leave on the table? Who would be responsible for cleaning up your table?


•  Generate a list of synonyms, antonyms, and descriptive words for the objects in the students’ paintings.

•  Have students write an article describing the procedure used in setting up a still life, explaining choice and arrangement of objects, value contrasts, size relationships, unity, and variety.

•  Have students orally describe their own still-life drawings to the class using synonyms, antonyms, and descriptive words to evoke the texture, smell, sight, and arrangement of the elements, as well as the mood of the pastel drawings.

Subject Matter Connection

In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Banquet Piece with Ham and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Banquet Piece with Ham are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider