The ‘seeming realism’ of Dutch still life paintings
by Maria Matheos
When faced with the sharp precision and textual verisimilitude of Dutch still life paintings we automatically, and rather incorrectly, deduce that they solely function as minute recordings of reality during the Dutch Golden Age. More specifically, that the lavish displays of exotic objects, variety of edible goods, flowers and staples of seventeenth century Dutch society depicted in domestic interiors are mirror reflections of everyday life in the Protestant Calvinist northern Netherlands.
To the many banquet and breakfast scenes produced during this period, an objective reading of their content can be applied. However, when it comes to other types of still life paintings, such as the pronk and vanitas still lifes, Svetlana Alpers proposes that the ‘seeming realism’, that is, the symbolic significance, should be noted. Regarding the banquet and breakfast scenes, some scholars go as far as saying that the lifelikeness of the edible goods prevent the viewer from admiring and scrutinising the symbolic element of breakfast and banquet still life paintings, as they excite the viewer’s appetite too much– evidently, ‘first we eat, then we do everything else’– an important life lesson for gallery goers.
Before discerning the symbolic significance of other types of still life paintings, we must look at the socio-historical context they were produced in: the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century was a place of conflicting ideas. While it is termed the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ – a period of economic and artistic prosperity due to the flourishing art market and overseas trade, it was also a period of suppression. The Protestant reformation propagated the spread of Calvinism across the northern Netherlands, leading to the strict monitoring and moralising of Dutch society. The iconographic content of pronk and vanitas still lifes produced by Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Clara Peeters (c. 1589 – 1657) – two Flemish painters who emigrated to the northern Netherlands during the early seventeenth century – conveys the morals and ideals of Protestant Calvinism at the time.
Food for thought: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” - Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.
The naturalistic depictions of the objects in vanitas still lifes carry symbolic meaning, reminding the viewer of life’s transience. These still lifes functioned as moral education in line with the teachings of Protestant Calvinism in the northern Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Renowned for producing vanitas still lifes at a rapid pace, the imagery in Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas Still Life (1630) is saturated with symbolic potency: the golden pocket watch, the empty overturned glass, the skull and the unlit oil lamp allude to death, warning the viewer of the futility and meaninglessness of material goods and possessions. A seventeenth century viewer would have interpreted this as an admonition of the wealth and growing materialism of the time. A sense of urgency regarding the inevitable passing of time is conveyed by the wisp of smoke in the background which suggests that the flame of the oil lamp has just been put out. Claesz’s placement of the light source on the left of the composition spotlights the objects, highlighting their symbolic content. Neither does the monochrome background nor the restrained and subdued colour scheme of brown and cream hues detract from Claesz’s moral message.
Dense with symbolic imagery, pronk still lifes, depicting a sumptuous display of rarities and expensive imported goods can be interpreted as an ‘embarrassment of [their owner’s] riches’ according to Simon Schama, whilst also drawing attention to the vices of wealth and excess. Indeed, Peeters’ Still Life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells (1611) is a statement, but also a warning of the dangers of the luxury and flourishing trade of the Dutch Golden Age. The content of Peeters’ work would have appealed to an affluent audience who could appreciate the virtuosic skills of the artist in her precise execution of texture and one who led a privileged lifestyle – or perhaps an audience who wished to be associated with such wealth and taste. The objects depicted are exotic goods, perhaps acquired for the sole purpose of collection, which Alejandro Vergara notes was a popular pastime amongst the elite in seventeenth century Dutch society. For example, the kraak porcelain on the right of the composition is an import from China, while the shells in front of it have been identified as originating from the west and east indies, and the west coast of Africa. Additionally, the Eurasian sparrow hawk resting on the basket in the background is associated with falconry, a form of entertainment that was more exclusive than hunting and was fashionable amongst royalty and aristocracy. There is not a single object which can be associated with a social class any lower than the most elite one. The overabundance of game, conveying the skill and elite status of the hunter, is evoked through the merging of the pictorial space with that of the viewer’s: the birds’ beaks spill over the table’s edge, adding a sense of theatricality. The selection of objects Peeters has displayed have been carefully selected and arranged, which, together with the high viewpoint she uses, reflect the artificiality of the scene despite the realism with which the objects are rendered. It is perhaps the overt artificiality and the almost hyperbolic excess of the rarities in pronk still lifes which suggests they have a moral message.
Still lifes show us a lot about the socio-historical context that influenced artistic practice during the Dutch Golden Age. Produced in a period characterised by artistic prosperity due to the growing art market and a sense of suppression imposed by the doctrine of Protestant Calvinism, the naturalism of still life paintings is fused with symbolism. The imagery of pronk and vanitas still life paintings reminds us about the ephemeral nature of sensory pleasures and acts as an admonition of luxury and excess. As we witness the craze of materialism and consumerism skyrocketing in the present day, we could definitely turn our attention to the symbolic messages of Claesz’s and Peeter’s paintings in order to learn a thing or two.
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Grootenboer, Hanneke. The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Furst, Herbert. The Art of Still Life Painting. London: Chapman and Hall, 1927.
Meagher, Jennifer. “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, May 2009. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm. Accessed 6 November 2018.
Vergara, Alejandro. The Art of Clara Peeters. Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016. February 07, 2018. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/still-life-with-sparrow-hawk-fowl-porcelain-and/11137fd7-e7a6-46d0-8345-08172ee26193. Accessed 7 November 2018.