Before 1610, still life paintings were unusual, and artists who specialised in them were exceedingly rare. After 1620, they were all the rage, particularly in the ‘Low Countries’, modern Belgium and the Netherlands, where there were dozens of specialist still life painters. The genre flourished so strongly during the Dutch Golden Age that it grew its own sub-genres such as the Breakfast Table, trompe l’oeils and Vanitas.
One of the most successful of the pioneer still life painters of the early seventeenth century was a woman, Clara Peeters, who was one of the finest still life painters of any age. We don’t even know when she was born, but she seems to have trained in Antwerp, then pursued her career successfully in the Dutch Republic. She’s thought to have been internationally successful by 1611, when at least four of her paintings were sold to Spain. Her last reliably-dated works are from 1621, although there are a few paintings which have been attributed to her from later.
No one knows whether she stopped painting when she married, or when she died.
I showed her early Venetian Glass, Roemer and a Candlestick (1607) in the previous article in this series. Allow me to remind you that it was 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. Its confectionery 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 isn’t just a still life, but an expression of vanitas, the futility and limits of our earthly existence.
Her paintings from 1611 which ended up in the Spanish Royal Collection, and are now in the Prado, move on from that impressive start.
This Table is laid out for a meal, with its range of food and surfaces with different optical properties.
Over the coming centuries, still life paintings featuring game were to become popular throughout Europe. Peeters’ Still Life with Game Piece and Poultry is their ancestor. The shells are another vanitas association.
Her Still Life of Fish and a Candlestick is one of the earliest and most accomplished paintings of the fruits de mer, which were to find favour with William Merritt Chase nearly three centuries later.
In the last of these, Clara Peeters makes another cameo appearance in its reflections, providing tantalising glimpses of herself.
The following year, her still life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour (1612) reveals multiple miniature self-portraits reflected in the gold cup at the right. These are shown more clearly in the detail below.
In her still life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels from about 1615, her surface and optical rendering reaches the amazing, and all thoughts of vanitas are forgotten. This is a celebration of the very earthly sensuous pleasures of food. These are sustained in several of her other later paintings, shown below.
She had not entirely forgotten the spiritual dimension, though. Two of her most interesting paintings return to the concept of vanitas.
Her Fruit, Dead Birds and a Monkey (1615-20) shows a more peculiar collection of objects: the grapes are covered with bloom, a peach is going rotten, and there’s a fly on an apple. The little monkey, busy feeding from nuts, is gazing at a small pile of dead birds. There are no glass or metal surfaces to show off Peeters’ painting skills either. I wonder whether she might have heard of or seen Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, although that had only been painted in about 1599 and in those fifteen to twenty years I don’t think that it left Italy.
Peeters established herself an international reputation, sold her paintings into major art collections, and pioneered what was to come in the rest of the century. Yet she barely merits mention in most accounts of the history of still life painting. Could it be that, like the Milanese artist Fede Galizia (1578–1630), she was a woman?
In the next article in this series, I’ll start to look at the paintings of some of the men that followed Galizia and Peeters.