There’s something very special about the realistic depiction of glassware in paintings. Not only is it one of the great technical challenges, but it’s also an excellent demonstration of an artist’s ability to paint what they see, not what they think. If you’re a young realist painter keen to demonstrate your skills, adding some glasses and decanters should do the trick, as it has done for so many in the past.
For the still life specialist, and artists like Janet Fish, the ability to paint fiendishly difficult glassware is part of the appeal of their paintings. In continuing this exploration of optical effects initiated by the van Eycks and other masters of the Northern Renaissance, their paintings can still make viewers gasp in awe at their vivid reality.
This weekend, I’m going to look at a selection of representational if not meticulously realist paintings of glass from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. I hope that you gaze as wondrously at them as I do.
Glass is a surprisingly ancient material, but it wasn’t until Venetians on the island of Murano discovered how to make clear glass in quantity in the thirteenth century that its optical characteristics could have been of special interest to painters. It then took the development of the realist depiction of objects during the Renaissance to pose the challenges.
One of the earliest realist depictions of glassware which is truly virtuoso was not among the great artists in the north of Europe, but in the first masterly exponent of oil painting in Italy, Antonello da Messina. Among the surviving fragments of his San Cassiano Altarpiece from 1475-76 are the test pieces of a glass of water and fine glass rods, which Antonello paints impeccably (detail below).
It wasn’t until about 1512-14 that Lucas Cranach the Elder in Germany amazed his viewers with his finely rendered glassy substitute for the golden apple in The Judgment of Paris (detail below).
Glassware quickly established itself as one of the constituents of many of the great still lifes painted during the Dutch Golden Age. I could fill a whole series of articles with images of these spectacular works, but here will confine myself to a couple of those with more interesting backgrounds.
Venetian Glass, Roemer and a Candlestick (1607) is one of Clara Peeters’ earliest known works, which shows an extraordinary skill in rendering varied surfaces and their optical properties. It is also one of the first still lifes in which the artist has included their own image reflected in the motif, here the base of the candlestick holder.
As in many still lifes of this period, its contents have interesting symbolic meaning. The confectionery shown is sweet and ephemeral, the ring a sign of earthly riches and temporal relationships, the fly an indicator of earthly decay, and the burning candle combines remembrance with the strict limits on lifespan in this world. This is not a mere still life, but an expression of vanitas, the futility and limits of our earthly existence.
When the young Diego Velázquez was trying to earn himself a place at the royal court in Madrid, he transformed the Spanish sub-genre of the bodegón and painted virtuoso demonstrations of his exceptional skill.
By far the most impressive of these early paintings is Old Woman Frying Eggs from 1618. Velázquez includes a rich range of reflective and transparent objects, which are shown better in the detail below.
The bright reflections of light on the flask of wine, the cooking pot for the eggs, and the mortar and pestle, are almost perfect, and his handling of shadows of these objects is impressive. Even at this early stage, his brushwork in fine detail is quite painterly, a trait which was to develop and attract criticism later in his career.
The Waterseller (of Seville) from about 1620 is another of his best bodegone. The face of the waterseller shown in profile is expertly modelled, and the glass and pottery completely convincing.
David Bailly’s Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols (1651) is a complex ‘vanitas’ painting containing multiple portraits which refer to the past. The artist’s real self-portrait at the time is in the painting which he holds with his left hand. Next to that is a painting of his wife, who had already died, and behind the perfectly-painted wine glass is a ghostly image of her projected onto the wall.
This painting is also unusual for its innovative use of colour and monochrome passages to distinguish its features from their ground.
If you’ve ever painted with soft pastels, you’ll be aware of their versatility and limitations. The next painting is the most awesome depiction of glassware that I have ever seen in this medium, and takes my breath away.
Applying his pastels to a parchment ground and support rather than paper, Jean-Etienne Liotard painted painstakingly detailed works including The Chocolate Girl from about 1744-45. The detail below shows the fine texture of the ground does nothing to disrupt the illusion of the glass of water she is carrying.
In tomorrow’s concluding article, I’ll show a selection of paintings of glassware from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.