History as Seen through the Dutch Still-Life

Still-life painting rose to new popularity in the 17th century, as the Protestant Netherlands broke away from the Catholic Church the use of religious subject matter was coming to an end in Dutch art.  At that time minor categories of painting such as still-life were explored more fully. 

Still-lives tell us a lot about history without the standard elements of a narrative painting.  They provide a context for seeing the influence that specific historical events had on culture.  For the contemporary Dutch artist “Still-Life” was too broad a term, instead each sub-genre had its own name, let’s look at four of these.

Floral Still-Life, Rachel Ruysch, 1704
Floral Still-Lives
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and Amsterdam  had a 21 year monopoly on trade with Asia.  New flowers were brought to Holland and these were a symbol of Dutch pride as they were obtained through the power of trade.  Every flower had its own symbolic meaning, flowers in painting were chosen for their symbols and not their appearance.  Look carefully, no two flowers are the same as they would be in a bouquet, in fact such arrangements would be impossible as the flowers were in bloom at different times of the year.

Floral still-lives were still popular a century after the Dutch East India Company was founded as can be seen in this work by Rachel Ruysch.  Ruysch worked in a dramatic and dynamic way and painted with startling realism.  Bees and butterflies had a significance which tied into a theme symbolizing Christianity.  The bee represented the Passion, its stinger referencing Christ’s crown of thorns.  The butterfly represented the resurrection and also the soul.  Flowers themselves embodied the fleeting nature of life, from buds and blooms to those that drooped and withered.

Breakfast Painting
Another sub-genre of still-life consisted of simple fare typical of a Dutch meal, known as breakfast paintings.  Food was shown on a table with a dark background and a monochromatic color scheme, such as this work by Clara Peeters. This particular type of painting became very popular in Haarlem.  Foods shown in breakfast paintings were Dutch staples and reminded viewers to follow moderation in all things. 
Breakfast Still-life with Bread, Cheese and Cherries, Clara Peeters

In the early 17th century many foreign foods weren’t available, unlike the beer, bread, butter and cheeses that the Netherlands was famous for.  Herring and seafood were readily accessible and it was herring that the Dutch founded their trading companies on.  These local foods also signified patriotism and Dutch Pride.

Contemporary audiences would have seen countless symbolic messages . For example in this Still Life by Pieter Claesz there is a religious meaning, the fish was a symbol for Christ and the bread and wine for the Eucharist.  
Breakfast Still-Life, Pieter Claesz 

The Vanitas Painting
In Latin Vanitas means vanity and the Vanitas painting uses symbols to reflect on mortality.  The message for the viewer was a reminder that while earthly life is fleeting, your soul is eternal. 

While variations of the Vanitas had been used for centuries, its rise in Dutch art coincided after troubling times.  The Twelve Years Truce with Spain ended in 1621 and much of the next decade was spent under siege.  In 1624 a plague swept through Holland claiming nearly 10,000 lives, it returned in 1635 and struck most heavily in Leiden where 14,000 people died.  Possibly due to this Leiden become the center of this sub-genre.  
Vanitas, Pieter Claesz

The Vanitas became increasing popular in the 1620’s and went from metaphorical to an allegory of death.  Symbols of mortality included: skulls, bones, extinguished candles, timepieces, doused oil lamps and empty hourglasses. Pieter Claesz specialized in the Vanitas genre.

Independence of the Netherlands and the Banquet Still-Life
In the 2nd half of the 17th century there was a clear transformation in style as still-lives moved to elaborate banquet paintings.  1648 marked the year when the Peace of Westphalia treaty was enacted and peace was restored.  The Netherlands were finally recognized after eighty years of war with Spain as an independent country.  This time of prosperity was reflected through the still-life, and objects went from simple to exotic and luxurious.  The banquet painting replaced the Vanitas in popularity and demand, especially in Amsterdam. 
Still-Life with Lobster and Nautilus Shell, De Heem

The Dutch West India Company was founded and given a trade monopoly with the Americas in 1621.  In the 17th century Amsterdam became the largest trading port in the world.  In general the Dutch enjoyed a higher standard of living and owning a still-life which represented the source of this wealth was desirable.  

In the 21st century we have such a wide array of goods at our fingertips that the scarcity of these objects in the 17th century Netherlands isn’t instantly recognizable.  The following is a list of where these goods came from-
From the Mediterranean: salt, wine, lemons, grapes and almonds.  From Asia: oranges, pepper, spices and tea.  From the Americas: tobacco, sugar, coffee and tropical fruit and birds.  In addition there was an incredible array of commodities: silver from France, glassware from Venice and from Asia porcelain, carpets and silk.

During each year more of these goods became available and thanks to the Dutch they were brought all over Europe.  This successful story of trade has been told in countless still-life paintings painted in the Dutch Golden Age.
Still life with fruit, roast, silver and glassware, porcelain and columbine cup, van Beyeren

Note: This blog is an excerpt from the paper I presented in October 2010 at the 7th Annual 
Northwest World History Association Conference, Objects and Their Meanings: 400 Years of 
History As Seen Through the Still-Life.

Another excerpt from this paper can be found in another blog post-
The Still-Lives of Meléndez and Goya

Suggested further reading on this subject:
Berger Hochstrasser, Julie. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale  University Press, 2007.

Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Still Life: A History. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Herzog, Hans-Michael. ed. The Art of the Flower: The Floral Still Life from the 17th to the 20thCentury. Bielefeld, Germany: Kunsthalle Bielefeld press, 1996.

Sander, Jochen. ed. The Magic of Things: Still Life Painting 1500-1800. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Stadel Museum, 2008.

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