Learn Economics By Looking At A Painting

It was the IPL yesterday, so why not art today?


Stare at this picture, and do so for a long time. If you are reading this on your phone, please take the time to switch to a laptop or even better, a desktop computer with a large screen. And just look at it, for as long as you like.

Here’s the description of this painting from Wikimedia:
On a table laid with a green table cloth and two linen damask serviettes are displayed: pewter plates with bread and a pewter dish with oysters, a glass of red wine, a glass of olive oil or a vinegar jug, a silver salt cellar, a rummer of white wine, a gilt silver cup, a pewter jug and a Berkemeyer laying on its side.

… which is fine as things go, but the NYTimes takes things to, as they say, another level in their Close Read series. I’ve linked to another one from this series more than a year ago, which is also worth your time. But this particular one, titled “A Messy Table, A Map of the World“, is worth an hour or more of your time.

In loving detail – and rarely must this phrase have been more appropriately used, Jason Farago takes us through the many messages, implications and nuances of this painting, and so much more besides.

I’ve noted below some points that stood out for me in terms of appreciating the painting better after having read the article (please note that I know nothing about art appreciation, so feel free to help me learn more):

  1. The reflection of the window-frame on the glass is remarkably well done, particularly on the wine glass, but also on the jug towards the right. The wine glass, by the way, is called a roemer, and the reason it has a knobbed stem is so that the glass is easier to grip after you’ve had a more than a couple of drinks.
  2. I wouldn’t have noticed it no matter how long I stared at it (but then again, I’m not very good at this), but directly below the half-hidden knife, on the edge of the white napkin is the artist’s signature, and the year in which the painting was created.
  3. The wall in front of which the table stands is drab by choice, so as to focus our eyes on the table itself.
  4. The lemon is mesmerizing. The realism that Heda manages is brilliant, and if you take a look at his other paintings, you will realize that it is a recurring motif.
  5. The texture of the bread in the foreground, the difference in the texture and the luster of the silver cup (or tazza) and the matte texture of the jug (or pewter) is remarkable.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you to both read the rest of the article, and figure out other details yourself.

But (surprise, surprise) what I enjoyed the most were the economic aspects.

  1. Learn more about where Heda was located, and why that mattered in terms of the commerce behind the creation of paintings such as these. Reflect on the section from the article that helps you understand why religious motifs are not to be seen in his works. While you are it, reflect on the fact that this is an artist known for the creation of a genre called late breakfasts. Who has the time to have late breakfasts, and what might that mean for the society that Heda lived in?
  2. Peperduur is a Dutch word, still in use today, that means expensive. It literally means “as expensive as pepper”. The peppercorns in the painting, by the way, are to be found in that little cone of paper towards the left of the painting.
  3. Where did the lemons come from back then? Were they imported? If so, from where? Under what conditions, treaties and laws? With what consequences? If you find yourself wanting to read more about this, I’m happy to recommend to you one of my favorite books about globalization: Vermeer’s Hat.
  4. Which other things came from which other parts of the world? The article tells us about gold, cinnamon, porcelain and pineapples that came from an island called Manaháhtaan. Where is this place, you ask? Well, near a place called New Amsterdam. And where is that, you wonder? Listen to this song, and read the lyrics.
  5. This is a painting that celebrates wealth: the fact that you were able to afford a spice that lives on today in a word that means expensive, that were able to afford to buy, eat and not finish something as expensive as oysters, that you were able to wash down the meal with beer and wine, that you were able to use only a bit of as expensive a fruit as a lemon, and that you could have a meal such as this for a late breakfast – all of this isn’t just telling the viewer a story. It is sending the viewer a message about what the Dutch people were when the painting was created. They were rich, and they wanted you to know it.
    How they became rich, at what cost to the rest of the world, and with what consequences to themselves and the rest of the world are questions that you should ask after you stare at the painting… and then try and find out the answers.

There are many, many ways to learn economics, whether by watching the IPL or by learning about art appreciation – and a million other things in between. Being a student of economics is about so, so much more than the study of an economics textbook. That, if anything, is barely the start.

I hope you have as much fun learning about this painting as I did!

5 thoughts on “Learn Economics By Looking At A Painting

  1. When this article came up on my LinkedIn feed, I tried to guess what the contents might be based on the picture. Seeing the half eaten lemon and bread, I guessed it might be of Diminishing Margninal Utility. From the picture of the silverware and oysters, I understood this was a luxurious meal and was thinking of Veblen goods.

    Then, I came here and realised that there actually is much more detail which requires knowledge of history, geography and many other subjects to appreciate.

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