Jacob Samuel Beck was born on 21 March 1715, to an affluent Erfurt family. His father, Georg Konrad Beck, was a ‘Ratsverwandter und Polizei-Commisarius’ [city councillor and police commissioner]. Records have so far failed to come up with much in the way of reliable information about Jacob Samuel Beck’s life and artistic career but he is known, as a painter, to have specialized in portraits, historical scenes and still lifes. Meusel’s Künsterlexikon conjectures that he learnt from nature and from the work of the masters, namely that he was self-taught. The technical and compositional skill of his paintings, however, would seem to contradict this assertion. It can be assumed that he made extensive study trips to Holland and to the courts of the neighbouring rulers. He could not have had access in Erfurt to examples of the Dutch and Flemish tradition in still-life painting and its German imitators – yet this influence was an essential prerequisite of his own work. No collection of this genre existed in Erfurt, a Protestant city, even though the genesis and style of many of Beck’s portraits and still lifes can only be seen as emerging from a haut-bourgeois context. Between 1664 and 1802 Erfurt was under the administrative and political rule of the distant archbishopric of Mainz, thereby sacrificing much of its autonomy. The fine arts were of marginal importance in eighteenth-century Erfurt. Here, Beck was the leading artistic figure and his oeuvre stood out as exceptional.
Beck is frequently mentioned in the early literature as having spent a considerable number of years at the court of Ernst August von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach in Weimar. If this had been the case, his still lifes would certainly have been influenced here, or in Gotha, by the animal painter Johann Friedrich Löber (1709-72). However the supposition that Beck occupied a post as ‘Hof- und Kabinettmeister’ at the Weimar Court from 1752 onwards has yet to be confirmed.
Eighteenth-century German still-life painting owed an important debt to the Dutch still-life tradition. Beck’s work is far removed from the lush still-life compositions of German painters like Johann Martin Metz (1717-89), Johann Amadeus Winck (1754-1817) and Caspar Arnold Grein (1765-1834), who modelled their work on the opulent style of artists like Abraham Mignon (1640-79). The unique quality of Beck’s work, however, lies in the spareness and the seeming naturalness of his compositions.
The array of vegetables appears to be scattered at random on the ground. Both the background and the underlying surface are executed in dark tones. From the slightly elevated viewpoint the individual types of vegetable can be easily identified – they are a selection of local produce such as cabbage, cucumber, carrot, asparagus and artichoke. Hazelnuts and walnuts are placed in the immediate foreground.
The careful and detailed handling of each of the objects recalls the work of the Dutch artist Joachim Bueckelaer (1530-c.1574). The colouristic values of the vegetables nevertheless suggest similarities with the paintings of the Flemish artist Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652). Unlike sixteenth and seventeenth-century still-life paintings, neither of the present works contains a reference to a vanitas theme and both are devoid of metaphorical vocabulary. Beck’s primary concern is to achieve highly realistic portrayals of produce, the guinea pig and the hare.