To start my research into the still life genre, I first look at a traditional approach : still life by the 16 th and 17 th century Dutch painters. I discover a Yale lecture by John Walsh on YouYube that was a perfect introduction to the subject:
“Food for thought: Pieter Claesz and Dutch still life” by John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery 2015
The term Still life was coined by the Dutch painters themselves, meaning a painting of objects not moving or devoid of a soul.( In Dutch still life means quiet life , not dead life as translated into French.)
In the 17 th century still life was very LOW in prestige, but very popular and widespread and sold in big quantities. Top ranking was for history paintings. But the still life flourished in the real life of making and selling art, it was accessible to many.
In the 17 th century Still life was divided into many categories:
Breakfast pieces- paintings with food
Kitchen still life
Pipe smoking pieces
Dead game and weapons
And a very large category: Flowers
Each category had subcategories, and each had it’s own specialists.
This was a time with a new approach to Science – categorizing natural objects- which spilled over into still life. It was the time of collectors. The Dutch sea fleet was bringing back exotic objects from around the world that were avidly collected – this was the time of “Kunst und Wunderkammer”- Cabinets of Curiosity. Artists worked for influential people all over Europe to document and categorize their collections of natural items.
In Italy and Spain still life was a minor category of painting but with brilliant artists such as Vincenzo Campi, inspired by Caravaggio.
In Spain Juan Sanchez Cotan created “Still life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and cucumber” 1602, with a brilliant composition, hanging fruits in the picture frame, alternating light and dark with a richness of surface and color:
The speciality of the Dutch still life was the luminous complexity. Also the compositions often show the illusion that people have already been there and touched or feasted on the objects of the paintings.
First theme : Vanitas: this life is temporary so it is foolish to be attached to it. Beauty, riches, power- all this is temporary. This theme was explored by a wide range of artists such as Barthel Bruyn the Elder in Still life with a skull and candle :
Pieter Claesz: stillife with skull and book 1628:
The glass is empty and upturned, the oil lamp empty, someone was there but is gone, it is over.
Vanitas with violin and glassball 1628: here a new surprising and complex element- the glassball reflects the subject of the painting, then the whole room and the artist himself.
Pieter Claesz painted many versions of Vanitas – then turned to a new category: Vanitas through food. Someone had been there but is gone, the food is decomposing.
There is a lot going on in the composition, a play of ovals, many colors, textures. The plate in front that is placed precariously on the edge of the table is coming directly at the viewer and the lemons on it have a see through character and luminosity that is spectacular. The lemons were always present in food still lives of this time.
Peter Claesz did not invent the subject of exploring “Vanitas” through food, it had been explored by the German still life painters. But there all the subjects were placed in order and ready for inspection. Claesz subject is in disorder. It is not a real meal, but a masquerade with a mix of modest objects like bread and expensive collectors pieces that speak of wealth.
Pieter Claesz was a master of complex reflections Here the pitcher and the wine glass reflect the whole room again.
A breakfast piece from 1627-28:
A complex composition , with the white tablecloth to the right, the plate of butter precariously balancing on the breadbasket and again the silver plate in the middle balancing on the edge of the table towards the viewer.
By Clara Peeters, possibly a self- portrait with a vanitas still- life: a pocket watch indicating the passing of time, dice for wasted time, gold (wealth) and a soap bubble- all traditional subjects for the Vanitas still- life:
The French artist Georges de la Tour explores this theme of Vanitas with portrait in Magdalene with lamp 1640. Magdalene the reformed sinner has learned her lesson, with a skull, a moving painting.
Clara Peeters a still life with Cheeses 1615:
Pieter Claesz Still life with a Roemer pipe 1633. It is also a breakfast piece, but still with the Vanitas theme- everything will be consumed, the coals are soon ashes. The dice and cards are symbols of waisting time.
Willem Claesz Heda:
A cooler and more sharp technique. The subject is in disorder and the plates very precariously balancing on the edge of the table into our space.
Here a still life with books 1628 in a monochrome color scheme. The monochrome was a new tendency that started in seascapes and then spread to the still life genre.
Jan Davidsz de Heem brought new and influential ideas to the genre with bold digonal compositions, energy spirals. He was influenced by Rubens ,who never painted still life. Here Still life with Lobster and Nautilus Cup 1634, a combination of beauty and instability with a light that adds a theatrical character:
De Heem became a painter of banquets, prunk, palatial still lives with grandeur, lots of everything and full of symbols of wealth and abundance. Here Still life with fruits, ham and lobster 1653.
He also became the most original painter of flowers, with strong accents of color, red particularly.
Arms and Armor:
Willem van Aelst , Hunt still life with a velvet bag on a marble ledge 1665. This is a new generation than de Heem. The bright blue is a sign of princely favour. It was made of ground lapis lazuli brought from Pakistan and extremely expensive. No signs of Vanitas here, no clock.
A hunters bag and hanging game. No sign of a weapon at first, but a small hood with a plume- it is a falcons hood. Hunting with falcon was popular among noble men at the time. This is painted with phenomenal exactness, even the knots of the string are detailed, without loosing the variety.
Franz Snyders, Still life with a wine cooler 1610-20.
This is not a found scene in the larder, but a carefully staged one with a heron and a peacock in a wide sweep of diagonals.
Rembrandt painted only one still-life: Dead peacocks 1639:
There is a lot of drama here, amped up by the light , by the way the blood flows towards us as well as the heads of the dead birds , pointing towards us and doubled by their shades.
Frans Snyder crossed games pieces with pieces with fruits and flowers He painted epic life size dramas with dogs and servants. Here Still life with a swan 1640:
JB Weenix , Still life with a dead swan 1651:
The swan is upside down in a diagonal, a graceful pose, a choreographed scene. The feathers explode in the light, expertly painted.
Willem Kalf specialized in a particular mix of peasant scenes with still life. Here Kitchen interior 1640-45:
This is freely painted with a new technique of crumbly paint that was picked up by many of his contemporaries .
Willem Kalf goes beyond any other painter in the way he renders the metal vessels. Here Still life with a metal flacon 1655-57.
Amazing refections: the color of the lemons reflect in the metal. It is truthful and magical at the same time.
And lastly Willem de Kalf, Still life with a Chinese Bowl and Nautilus cup 1662:
This still life is a trade show of objects of great wealth from China, Persia, the Mediterannean, also showing a mix of Deities from different cultures. Here we see the power and wealth of the Dutch sea fare.
The theme of flowers is a huge subject for the still life genre of the time, but was not described here as it is the subject of a whole separate lecture.
I learned a lot watching this lecture. It gives a good overview of the Dutch traditional still life genre in the 16 th 17 th century. Although this is not the style of art I would like to make, I am in absolute awe and deep respect of the skills of these painters.
I also learned a lot about composition- use of ovals, diagonals, alternating light and dark subjects. Some new ideas, like hanging the fruit.
Also to make the compositions more dynamic, spilling , overturning, balancing objects. Using the space going towards the viewer . I like that the compositions have signs that someone has been there and eaten or written or touched the things, making the still life live outside the picture frame.