By about 1620, still life paintings were in great and growing demand across the Netherlands. From then until the end of the seventeenth century, still life painting flourished in the Low Countries, with some spread to Germany, and a few specialists in Spain, France and Italy. This article looks at how it developed primarily in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium.
In the early years, still life paintings typically showed collations of food, floral arrangements, and symbols of the transience of life on earth, so-called vanitas.
Collations of food grew ever more inventive, with Pieter Claesz combining a table of bread and delights in his Still Life with Musical Instruments from 1623. His underlying themes here are the rich browns of the food, wood and tortoise, and their curved forms.
In Spain, Juan de Zurbarán, son of the more famous artist Francisco, painted unusual still lifes in chiaroscuro, such as this Still Life with Fruit and Goldfinch from 1639-40. This also includes a butterfly and a wasp, which has settled on the grapes. Tragically, the artist died during an outbreak of the plague which ravaged Seville in 1649, at the age of only twenty-nine.
From the days of the Northern Renaissance two centuries earlier, artists in the Low Countries had pursued the accurate depiction of optical effects in their paintings. Pieter Boel’s Still Life with a Globe and a Parrot from about 1658 continues this tradition, with its outstanding three-dimensional effects in the plate and goblet in the foreground.
There are potential rewards here in a deeper reading too. The globe shows the Pacific Ocean and the north-west coast of America, with the ‘Dutch’ East Indies at its left edge. The bas-relief plate shows a scene from mythology, in which male and female deities are riding in a chariot. The god appears to be holding a trident, suggesting that he is Neptune. The two porcelain bowls at the far right appear Chinese, and there are two living creatures – the white parrot (or, perhaps, cocktiel) and a small dog at the bottom left corner. These, coupled with the design on the carpet, appear to provide many days work in bringing their associations together in a reading.
Other artists developed the still life in the direction of food, as shown in Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate from about 1645. He brings together an impressive variety of surface optical effects too, in this bravura display of technique.
Still life paintings pressed on into culinary exhibitions, usually centred on the breakfast table (ontbijtjes), which in Spain developed into bodegone, populated by caterers and their customers at roadside stalls.
Another fine example is Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Salt Tub from about 1644, with its combination of bread, fish, sea salt, and an ornate glass goblet with its optical effects.
Vanitas paintings first appeared during the Northern Renaissance, and were well-known by the middle of the sixteenth century. The concept is crystallised in a verse from Ecclesiastes, which is given in the Latin translation of the Vulgate as vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, rendered into English as vanity of vanities, all is vanity, although here the word vanity refers to emptiness and futility, rather than conceit.
The key concepts to be expressed by a Vanitas painting thus include:
- the brevity of life on earth,
- the imminence of death,
- the worthlessness of earthly riches,
- the futility of earthly pursuits and pleasures.
Because these are all abstract concepts, the challenge in every Vanitas painting is to find the right objects which symbolise those concepts. This is generally accomplished through an allegorical language, for which a still life is ideal. They also overlap with other popular themes in painting, such as the Memento mori, or reminder of one’s own mortality.
Carstian Luyckx includes a wide range of symbolic objects in his undated Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life. These include a globe, the physical world itself, the gall from a tree, a snuffed-out candle, seashells, and coral. He uses another common device found in Vanitas painting: an open book, here showing King Charles I, who was executed in 1649, and his wife Henrietta Maria of France, who was deposed as queen of England by the civil wars, which forced her to flee to France in 1644.
Evert Collier’s A Vanitas from 1669 is a later collection, showing additional objects which became involved in the allegory, including a sword, armour, fine fabrics, and ornamental feathers.
Travelling in almost the opposite direction from vanitas is the trompe l’oeil, which had been popular with the Romans in classical times, and was known as bedriegertje in the Netherlands.
Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts specialised in the production of trompe l’oeil still lifes. The wall-mounted letter-rack shown in his Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book (1668) became a popular and lasting theme.
Some of Gijsbrechts’ trompes l’oeil became quite elaborate too, such as his Cabinet in the Artist’s Studio (1670-71), which also uses a hanging curtain device.
My last example from Gijsbrechts’ work is worthy of the twentieth century: Trompe l’oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting from 1668-72. There is little new in so-called modern art after all.
I’ve already shown some still life paintings which included living creatures. Those developed into another sub-genre of dead game, which in turn linked to hunting and the depiction of wildlife.
Even Rembrandt painted this Still Life with Two Peacocks and a Girl in about 1639, although perhaps it remained figurative with the inclusion of the girl.
Jan Weenix specialised in this sub-genre. His Still Life of a Dead Hare, Partridges, and Other Birds in a Niche from about 1675 is one of a large number of finely detailed and realistic paintings which he made.
These piles of animal corpses spilled out into a strangely dark countryside, in paintings such as his Still Life of Game including a Hare, Black Grouse and Partridge, a Spaniel looking on with a Pigeon in Flight from about 1680. These became popular at the time, and Weenix was commissioned to decorate the houses of the rich with large murals on canvas, and to paint series for European royal courts. The more ostentatious paintings were known as pronkstilleven.
Others used the still life as a link to what became natural history painting.
For their familiarity, bright colours, and natural beauty, butterflies were popular in the Dutch Golden Age, particularly in smaller paintings such as still lifes destined for the collector’s cabinet. Nicolaes de Vree’s undated Forest Floor Still Life with Flowering Plants and Butterflies from the latter half of the seventeenth century is a fine example of a painting which goes beyond the normal still life and depicts a more natural scene.
Still life painting during the Dutch Golden Age thus not only flourished and brought commercial success to many artists. It also laid the foundations for several sub-genres which were to be developed later. Far from being the lowest of the genres, for around a century in the Low Countries still lifes were among the most innovative and exciting.