Okay, admit it. When ambling through collections of European art, you tend to bound past those Dutch still life paintings. I know I do. Admirable though they might be in technique, there seems so little there to grab us (the above example is by Althasar van der Ast). No figures to relate to, no narrative, no drama. Worse still, the artists seem interchangeable, which conflicts with our who's-who or auteur approach to museum-going. Moreover, still life has been written off as a low form of art. With the exception of Cézanne, no artist who remains widely known today gained fame through painting piles of fruit, and for him, subject matter was far less important than method. Here I want to offer something of an appreciation of the Dutch still life genre, or at least a contextualization that has made me slow down when crossing those vacant museum rooms.
It all begins after 1600, we are told, during the Golden Age of Dutch culture. The flower picture on the left is from 1608 (by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder) and the skull with coins is from 1603 (Jacques de Gheyn the Elder). By this time, the Dutch Republic had been liberated from Spanish rule, and there was a growing middle class eager to invest in art. Still life paintings were a smash hit and their popularity would last for over a century. But the emergence of this genre is something of a mystery. How did still life paintings first appear? Why then? Why there? And what made them so damn popular?
To get at these questions, we need to first expose a myth: Dutch still life paintings did not appear ex nihilo. They have a history before the 20th century, and that history is important for understanding cross-currents and changing tides in European art. Here I want to focus on food paintings, leaving aside flowers, books, and other popular subjects. Food, of course, is often present in representational art, and had been featured in many Renaissance paintings, from Leonardo's Last Supper (1494-8) to Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding (1568). But food is incidental in most of these works. The question is, when did food get recognized as a subject in its own right?
One important breakthrough seems to have been Pieter Aertsen's Butcher's Shop with a Flight Into Egypt, painting in 1551, half a century before still life painting officially took off in the low countries. This painting (above) is nothing short of astonishing. Aertsen was a Northern Mannerist, and he achieves here what is called a Mannerist inversion, taking a classical biblical scene and exiling it to the background, exalting lowly or incidental objects, by making them the primary subject of the work. This has been done by others with landscapes, and now Aertsen was doing it with decadent piles of food. The Flight into Egypt (shown in a detail below) is almost invisible, nestled below a pig's ear. It's significance is rendered even more trifling by the presence of an equally proportioned genre scene on the right side of the canvas, which features two men and two women, inviting narrative projections from the viewer of domestic life and romance (also below).
Shortly after producing this with Aertson would be producing food paintings without religious pretext. He specialized in market scenes, which quickly caught on. These are usually market scenes: butchers, fishmongers, or fruit and vegetable sellers. Others began to make kitchen scenes as well. Technically, these are not still life paintings, because they retain important figurative elements, but the foodstuffs dominate, making them important precursors. The greatest of these painters is perhaps Joachim Beuckelaer, who painted sturdy market women with rolled sleeves, stationed proudly aside mountains of cabbages.
Stylistically, however, there is a gap between the mannerist marvels of the 16th century, and the austere chiaroscuro, which typifies the 17th century genre. To fill this gap, we need a detour through Italy, or so it seems to me. Mannerism is colorful, dramatic, and flamboyant. In both Northern Mannerism and its Italian counterpart, there is an active effort to break from the sedate realism of earlier Renaissance work. So we must ask how did sedate realism re-enter the still life? This question, I suggest, is tantamount to answering, how did Mannerism end? One answer, popular in art history, is that mannerism was killed off, by a murderous painter named Caravaggio.
Caravaggio can be described as an anti-mannerist. Compare his Supper at Emmaus (above), with the same theme painting by Pontormo (right), a pioneer of mannerism. Where mannerists exaggerated and elongated bodies, making them almost otherworldly, Caravaggio achieved extreme naturalism, painting recognizable low-status individuals. Where mannerists eschewed black, and used color to shade (cangiantismo), Caravaggio was a master of what Whistler would later called "nocturne painting": subjects are rendered in extreme darkness, with high-contrast highlights provides by candles or other restricted sources of light. Where mannerists filled every inch of their canvases, Caravaggio used empty space generously and judiciously. Mannerist paintings team with activity, and Caravaggio gives us frozen moments. His paintings are not life-less (far from it), but they present life on the edge, in moments where the stillness of death is also palpably present.
Caravaggio, it must be said, did not invent this new approach to painting on his own. He was influenced by earlier Lombardy painters, like Moretto da Brescia. To understand the link between Caravaggio's stylistic innovations and Dutch still life painting, it is helpful to recall a forgotten figure in the Lombardy school, Vincenzo Campi. Campi was a bridge figure between the excess of mannerism and the sobriety of Lombardy, a remarkable balance, which he achieved in part by adapting a genre of paintings that was more or less unknown in Italy: the market painting. Influenced by Dutch artists like Beuckelaer (remember him?), Campi's paintings retain the opulent piles of food found in northern Mannerist market scenes, but arrange these more tidily, and he tones down the palette and adds more negative space. He was creating paintings like this by the 1570s. The one below is from 1580.
Now enter Caravaggio. A specialist in biblical and classical scenes, Caravaggio is hardly known as a still-life painter. But he surely would have seen works like Campi's. When Caravaggio left the Lombardy region and arrived poor and hungry in Rome, he apprenticed himself to a popular painter, Giuseppe Cesari -- a mannerist with a dark palette. He began doing hack work for Cesari, which included painting fruit. Caravaggio's first known solo effort (c. 1591) depicts a boy peeling fruit. Shortly thereafter, he would paint his magnificent Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593-4), which features Caravaggio's dough-eyed lover set against a plain dark background cradling a delirious mound of apples, grapes, and other delectables. In 1595-6, he produced something remarkable: a painting showing nothing but a basket of fruit. Though not the first painting of its kind, this was something truly unusual. No people were present, no market women or biblical characters. Nothing but the fruit. Notice that this basket looks just like the one in the Emmaus painting above, suggesting it might have been a study.
Carravaggio's style spread quickly through Europe. He had imitators in Italy, France, and Spain. In Italy, he influenced the work of a superb painter named Fede Galizia, who began producing still lifes. The earliest dated example is from 1602 (below), but it is possible that Galizia was painting such panels before Caravaggio.
Caravaggio's Spanish enthusiasts also began producing still life paintings. The two best followers were Juan Sanchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán. They both adopted a highly formalized, minimalist approach and can be credited with producing some of the most striking still life painting ever crafted. Examples from each appear below.
My interest here, however, is with Caravaggio's followers in the Dutch Republic. Unlike the Italians and Spanish, the Dutch were Protestant. More precisely, they were Calvinists. This presumably added to Caravaggio's appeal. The Dutch were committed to austerity and restraint--characteristics evident in his paintings. But Caravaggio also had a lusty side. His sensuous humanism and his apotheosis of prostitutes and streetwise pretty boys did not align with their values. Moreover, there was a Calvinist ban on religious subjects, which had been Caravaggio's forté. Indeed, there were efforts to cut art off from the church. Meanwhile, new found affluence meant there was a growing class of consumers with disposable income who wanted to invest in art without violating religious strictures. In this climate, Caravaggio's style had great appeal, but only his still life paintings were safe in terms of subject matter.
Safe, that is, unless one could interpret a fruit bowl as something indulgent. Here Calvinism exerts an unexpected influence on portrayals of food. Wealthy patrons needed a way to express the fact that their lavash life-styles remained in line with teachings of the church. The solution: paint still lives that include the trappings of wealth (imported foods, expensive service items), while also indicating that such things are fleeting and vain. Dutch artists began to paint table settings in a style that owed much to the Lombardy school, but with signs of mortality and decay: rotting fruit, meat or fish (which will quickly spoil), crumbling bread, empty dishes, half-full goblets, broken glasses, snuffed out candles, and even insects and skulls. These "vanitas" paintings achieved a delicate balance between celebrating Dutch prosperity while also acknowledging that true reward is reserved for the hereafter (the detail is from the van der Ast at the start of this post).
All of this, of course, has stage setting for the work that I want to examine. Let me turn, at last, to a few Dutch still lifes. To begin with a canonical example, consider this masterpiece by Willem Claeszoon Heda (1634). The background is a simple gray field with a ray of light, reminiscent of Caravaggio. The main subject is a dinner table after a feast, replete with many of the aforementioned symbols of impermanence, along with a tipped chalice and a crumpled tablecloth. At the near midpoint of the canvas is a silver "cellar," which is a decorative canister for holding salt, a luxury item. There is also a plate of half eaten oysters, and a half peeled lemon, whose rind hangs down like a noose on the far right. Thus, saltiness, bitterness, and tartness are all on display, standing in for culinary abundance (lemons were imported from the Mediterranean), but also serving as metaphors for life's hardships. These items are common in the genre, and reappear the same iconic consistency as Mary and Jesus in Renaissance art.
Heda's painting is at once decadent and austere. These two extremes are always in dialectic display in these works, but some artists pushed the balance in one way or the other. The painting below, by Pieter Claesz (1635) is striking for its minimalism. It mostly consists in a large piece of meat, which, rather than enticing, has the charm of a human skull.
By contest, consider this work by Abraham van Beyeren, which shows a more ostentatious style which became popular later in the 17th century. The extravagance on display here vaguely recall Mannerism, but the controlled, horizontal formal, and the vanitas symbols make it unmistakably Baroque.
One interesting phenomenon in the world of Dutch still life painting was the inclusion of women. Though sill greatly outnumbered by men, a number of women painting attained considerable recognition at that time. I mentioned Rachel Ruysch in an earlier blog (on the Wunderkammer), who was an accomplished flower painter. Of equal acclaim was Clara Peeters. The example below is "breakfast" painting, which contrasts with the "banquet" painting we've been looking at. Peeters liked to depict cheese, and in this stunning example from 1616, she also includes dates, nuts, and pretzels (those coils on the left are not meat). Unlike the other examples, there are no overt symbols of mortality here, though the grim color scheme and claustrophobic composition hardly make this an homage to hedonism.
Also of note is the knife. A standard trope in Dutch still life paintings, Petters liked to sign her work by creating an illusionistic engraving on cutting implements. I like to think of this as a feminist gesture. Also amenable to that interpretation are the figure cast into this particular knife: a nude woman pouring wine and another holding a cross. These two figures perfectly capture the dialectic that I have been discussing, but they also say something about the artist. Peeters may be presenting herself as devout, but also carnal. An unsurpassed master of the genre, she had a talent for breathing life into inanimate things. It is hard to view her canvas without feeling the urge to pick up a piece of the dried fruit on offer.
Notice, too, the chip in the table here. You might think it looks familiar. A less subtly chipped table appears above in one of Caravaggio's examples. I don't know who innovated this particular symbol of decay. It may have Italian origins, but, then again, we have seen that the Italians were also borrowing ideas from the Dutch. I'm not suggesting that Peeters was looking at Italian paintings. It's beleived that her teacher was Osias Beert, the elder, a Dutch master. Here is a graphic example of his craft (note the roll, which also makes a cameo in the example from Peeters).
By way of conclusion, I want to mention that, despite a strong bias against still life painting, the genre has an important place in art history. I mentioned Cézanne at the outset, but we must also remember that Braque and Picasso made extensive use of the genre in launching cubism, Morandi made a career of it, and pop artists arguably restored something analogous to still life painting when they began to depict ordinary household items. With this in mind, I end with a Warhol-inflected homage to Heda.