Art Across the Curriculum
Joachim De Beuckelaer - The Fish Market 1570 - 74
This picture is one of the largest old masters in the Ferens' collection. It is thought to be a late work by Beuckelaer since earlier works, although similar in subject matter and style, are less relaxed and rhythmic. The movements of the figures seem to echo the positions of the many fish. Beuckelaer's pictures have required a great deal of explanation as in almost all the artist's earlier work the small figures in the background introduce some reference to a biblical theme. This means that at the time the pictures, although essentially innovative in their approach to real life, could also be enjoyed for their connotation. Here, Beuckelaer creates a lifelike representation of a Flemish fish market.
Such markets would often be held outside the walls of a town, as is seen here. The three main figures are all clearly involved with the market. The enigma, however, comes from the two women in the left background with their long black veils. They face each other, almost expressionless, in stark contrast to the brilliant animation of the main figures. Nevertheless the dominant feature of the whole picture is the depiction of a wide variety of fish, presumably a cross section of the types of fish favoured at the time (see next page for a diagram of the fish varieties). However, such paintings often carry specific contemporary connotations.
Fishmarket scenes were commonly a metaphor for water and the inclusion here of salmon, a symbol for the female sexual organs, suggests a strong flirtation between the man and woman. In present day terms it is not always easy to see how innovative Beuckelaer's treatment was as it was adopted by very many Flemish painters, especially in Antwerp, where fish markets and fish still life pictures are far more familiar than those of Beuckelaer. Many Flemish pictures of this period are large in scale and it is likely that such breadth and colourfulness allowed them to act as a substitute for the very much more expensive tapestries which decorated Antwerp merchants' large houses. The original owners of these pictures have very rarely been identified.
The painting is monogrammed on the lower right in grey, centrally beneath the platter of three fish: JB. The frame is a a Netherlandish l6th century-style moulded frame.