Clara Peeters – The Queen of Still Life paintings

I suppose painters challenge us with trompe l’oeil aspect of their depictions partly as a joke, as in the case of M C Escher and partly as an outward show of their technical brilliance. Trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) is often incorporated in still life paintings and in many facets of a still life work we can appreciate the expertise of the artist.  The words still life derive from a Dutch word stilleven while the French prefer nature morte and Italian, natura morta meaning dead nature.  Still life paintings are those which depict inanimate objects, whether they be such things as musical instruments, kitchen utensils and tableware as well as portrayal of dead animals, foliage or musical instruments etc.  Often the inclusion of an inanimate object in a painting has a symbolic meaning whilst at other times it is simply art for art’s sake.

What Is Vanitas
Vanitas Still Life with a Skull and a Quill (1628) by Pieter Claesz

The term memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’ is often a term used when describing certain types of still life works.  Paintings, for example, which may include a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.  Closely related to the memento mori picture is the vanitas still life.  I find the depiction of these inanimate objects fascinating and feel that they are completed by the most talented artists. 

Basket of Flowers by Balthasar van der Ast (1622)

Unlike me, the French Academy of the seventeenth century did not agree.  According to the French Academy their hierarchy of genres (or subject types) for art established in the seventeenth century, still life paintings were ranked at the bottom – fifth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and landscape. It is thought that still life and landscape paintings were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter.

Still Life with Jug, Berkemeyer and Smoking Utensils_Pieter Claesz_17th century
Still Life with Jug, Berkemeyer and Smoking Utensils by Pieter Claesz (1640)

We know people buy portraiture to remember someone.  People buy landscapes and seascapes for their beauty and often to remind themselves of places they loved to visit.  Genre paintings were scenes of everyday life which often were also pictorial tales of morals and sometimes the realist genre paintings told of harsh times suffered by the less fortunate.  But who would buy still life paintings?  I suppose a beautiful flower arrangement depicted in a floral still life lights up a room but what about still life paintings which depict dead animals, food and expensive homeware?  Buyers of such work may believe that the painting reflects their affluence or hunting prowess.

The spoils of the chase guarded by a dog by Jan Fyt (c.1630)

When you look through the list of sixteenth and seventeenth still life painters, very few women’s names appear and yet there are a few.  The most obvious are the seventeenth century artists, Rachel Rausch with her floral still life works and Judith Leyster.   Today I want to look at the life and works of the greatest female still life painters, Clara Peeters.  She was by far the best-known female Flemish artist of this era and one of the few women artists who became a professional artist in seventeenth-century Europe, and she achieved that status despite constraints on women’s access to artistic training and membership in guilds.

Still Life Self portrait by Clara Peeters (c.1610)

Clara Peeters was born in Antwerp but when it comes to her date of birth there is some confusion.  It is known that a Clara Peeters, the daughter of Jean (Jan) Peeters was baptized on May 15th 1594 in the Church of St. Walburga, Antwerp and other records indicate that Clara Peeters and Henric Joosen were married in the same church on May 31st 1639.  So is that Clara Peeters the famous artist?  Although she is a major figure in the history of European still life painting, almost nothing is known about Clara Peeters’s life with certainty. Early researchers confused her with other women bearing the same relatively common name, ranging from an Antwerp heiress to an Amsterdam prostitute.  Also, we have to be wary of jumping to conclusions as Peeters was a very common name in Antwerp.

Still Life by Clara Peeters (1607)

Another factor which casts doubt on the birthdate of 1594 as her paintings, which were dated 1607, would mean she completed them she was just thirteen years of age and that is extremely unlikely so the conclusion is Clara was born in the 1580’s.

Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab, and Prawns by Clara Peeters (1611)

At a point in time when she was living in Amsterdam Clara Peeters produced one of her still life masterpieces in 1911.  It was entitled Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab, and Prawns.  Before us we see what looks like a wooden table upon which is a selection of seafood, such as boiled crabs and shrimp, several freshwater fish including two carp, a roach, several ide or orfe, and a northern pike.  Behind the food there is a dark glass goblet, a brass candlestick with an unlit but partially burnt out candle, a Rhenish stoneware jug, a copper strainer with a brass colander in which are two artichokes. 

The reflected face

Although you will not see it in the main picture if you were able to take a close look at the lid of the jug you would see a reflection/self portrait of Clara wearing a large headpiece.  She, like a number of famous artists, included her own portrait in a number of her paintings.

Still Life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells, zoomed in
Still life with Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells by Clara Peeters (1611)

Another painting in the Prado collection by Clara Peeters is her 1611 work entitled Still Life with a Sparrow Hawk, Fowl, Porcelain and Shells and is thought to have been in the Spanish royal collection.  In this work we see a life-sized Eurasian sparrow hawk balanced on the edge of a wicker basket.  Due to its large size we believe it to be the female of the species.  Sparrow hawks would typically be used in the gardens surrounding a palace or a city, and not only by men but also by women and children learning the art of falconry.  Lying lifeless in the basket is a large mallard, and a woodcock.  At the left, with its head hanging from the table is a hen.  A dead thrush lies on the table.  The small red bird to the right is a common bullfinch.   The bullfinch often appeared in Clara’s still life paintings and this could well be because of its vivid red colouring and in this work contrasts well with the green head of the mallard.  Along the side of the wicker basket are a line of dead finches, hanging by their necks.    One question you might ask yourself is why have one live bird depicted among so many dead ones.  I think the reason is that the smaller dead birds could well be the prey of the living sparrow hawk.  Again in this painting, as it was in the previous one, note how Clara has contrasted the soft feathered bodies of the birds with the harder and finer surfaces of the shells and porcelain dishes.

Kraak bowl (c.1600)

The several plates and bowls of white kraak porcelain are stacked on top of a blue and white kraak plate, an item which appeared in a number of Peeters’ paintings.  In this painting the blue colour of this dish has faded and this is probably due to the cobalt-based pigment used.  Kraak ware or Kraak porcelain is a type of Chinese export porcelain produced mainly in the late Ming Dynasty, in the Wanli reign.   It was among the first Chinese export wares to arrive in Europe from the late sixteenth century via Portugal and Spain, and spread throughout the continent mainly through Habsburg networks.  It often featured in Dutch Golden Age paintings of still life subjects which included foreign luxuries.

Image result for still life with flowers, gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruits, sweets, biscuits, wine and a pewter flagon
Still life with flowers, a Silver Gilt Goblet, Dried Fruits, Sweetmeats, Bread Sticks, wine and a Pewter Flagon by Clara Peeters (1611)

For the less squeamish but keeping to the subject of food I give you Clara Peeters’ 1621 painting entitled Table with Cloth, Salt Cellar, Gilt Standing Cup, Pie, Jug, Porcelain Plate with Olives and Cooked Fowl.  There are no dead animals on this table, just simple and tasty fare.  The arrangement of inanimate objects would appear random when in fact Peeters probably spent much time with the arrangement.  Firstly, she would want what was placed on the table to look like an everyday table set for a feast.  However, she would ensure that none of the objects blocked the view of another. The glass in the background containing the red wine is a fluted façon de Venise glass and was the type that was being manufactured in Antwerp by Italian glassblowers at the time. It is probable that the red wine had been imported from France, Italy or Spain. At the time of the painting much of food in the Dutch capital, such as wine, oil, salt, raisins and figs had come from Spain.  In this painting we see these fruits, together with almonds and sugar candy, in a large wide bowl known as a bianchi di Faenza vessel, a type of earthenware made in Faenza, an Italian city in the province of Ravenna, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries..

Reflections

Look carefully at the gilt goblet and the pewter flagon.  These are objects that appear in other of her still life paintings and also once again, she painted her self-portrait – three times in the raised parts of the goblet and four times in a vertical line on the pewter jug. This inclusion of herself portraits in some of her works is believed to be a form of a proclamation that she was a female painter and proud to be one in a profession dominated by men.

Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels.jpg
Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels by Clara Peeters (1615)

The Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels which she completed in 1615 is one of Clara Peeters’ best works and is part of the Mauritshuis collection. The depiction features a stone table top on which is a tin plate with three cheeses on it.  Above the cheeses is a smaller plate of butter shavings. In the foreground, on the left there are two pretzels, next to which is a knife with a beautifully decorated silver handle, three almonds and a blue-white plate of Wan Li porcelain filled with dried figs, almonds and raisins.  In the background we see a stoneware jar and a partially gilded lidded glass à la façon de Venise.  On the right side of the table there is also a sandwich and two raisins.  It is a meticulous depiction even down to small damages to some of the items and the hole in the cheese where a testing tube had been inserted.  As with all her still life works she has a remarkable ability to depict textures.  Look how she has depicted the crumbly nature of the dark green cheese and the softness of the shavings of butter as well as the reflective quality of the wine glass.  Her colour palette consists mainly of delicately harmonised yellow and reddish-brown shades and by doing this she has added warmth to the depiction but it is contrasted by the cool blue and white bowl at the right foreground.  The dark background and the way she has placed the objects in close proximity to each other offers a scene of intimacy.

The ornate knife

Look at the knife in the foreground that overhangs the edge of the table. The blade has an Antwerp mark, but more of interest is the ornate handle, which is decorated with ornaments and figures that signify love and marriage.  Although not clear in the picture, at the top a vignette of entangled hands with a burning heart and below it the allegorical figures of Faith and Temperance.  This type of knife, along with a matching fork in a pouch, was given as a wedding cutlery as a gift at weddings.  Even more interesting is the side of this bridal knife, on which Clara has put her name in the form of an engraved inscription, which is unusual as it is one of the few still lifes that she has signed her name in full, rather than her usual signature on her paintings “CLARA P”.    Maybe the reason for the full name on the knife handle was because it was her own wedding gift. However, whether she ever married is still unknown. 

Face of Clara in the lid of the jug

Once again we see the added personal touch to this still life work for if you take a closer look you can uncover in the metal lid of the stone jug the reflection of a face with a white cap: this is Clara herself and as in other paintings by her this reflection appears to be a secondary “signature”.  This incorporation of a self portrait in a painting soon caught on and many other artists followed suit.

Florero (2)
Vase of Flowers by Jan Brueghel the Elder (Jan Velvet Brueghel), 1609

Paintings depicting vases of flowers were very popular at the time.  One of the leading exponents was Jan Breughel the Elder.

Bouquet of Flowers by Clara Peeters (c.1612)

One of Clara Peeters’ floral still life paintings is in the Met Museum of New York. The painting depicts a luxurious bouquet of flowers in a roemer glass, which stands on a low stone shelf. The painting is awash with primary colours which make it stand out against a plain dark background.  The bunch is a mix of late spring and early summer blooms and include roses, tulips, narcissi, carnations, and irises. We see that some of the flowers have shed their petals which now lie on the pitted ledge.  Clara Peeters was an expert when it came to depicting reflective surfaces, an example of this is her depiction of the glass with its ornamented base and serrated foot. We see a butterfly perched on the stem of a fallen flower and in a way, this brings to life this still life work.

One has to presume that Clara Peeters’ choice of still life paintings is a result of the restrictions imposed on female artists. Female artists rarely followed an art education, certainly never being allowed to paint naked models, a must-do requirement if you wanted to become a history painter.  On the other hand, everyday objects were within reach of female painters.  Peeters’ still life artwork was in great demand with the buying public.  Already in the first half of the 17th century there was work by her in collections in the Northern Netherlands as well as her still lifes in the royal collection in Madrid. As was explained at the beginning of this blog the date of her birth is not precisely known.  It is the same for the date of her passing but it is presumed to be sometime after 1657.

Marianne North the botanical painter

Marianne North     1830-1890
Marianne North
1830-1890

The artist I want to look at today could, I suppose, be labelled simply as a floral painter but in fact because of her desire for accuracy in floral detail she is often referred to as a botanical painter.  Even today, in the age of photography, botanical art still thrives and with so much destruction of habitats around the world, which nurtured rare flora, the necessity to record such species in detail is of paramount importance.  My featured artist today is the Victorian artist Marianne North.

The House at Hastings
The House at Hastings

Marianne North was born at Hastings Lodge in Hastings, England on October 24th 1830.  Her father Frederick North, an Old Harovian, was a wealthy landowner, local magistrate and, on a number of occasions, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Hastings.  His wife Janet (née Marjoribanks), was the daughter of Sir John Marjoribanks M.P., 1st Baronet of Lees in the County of Berwick.  She had been widowed when her first husband Robert Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire died in a coaching accident 1818. She and her first husband had a daughter, Janet Shuttleworth.  Marianne North came from a long line of nobility and many of her ancestors’ portraits hung in the family dining room.  She was devoted to her father and in her autobiography, A Vision of Eden, she wrote of him:

“…My first recollections relate to my father.  He was from first to Last the one idol and friend of my life…”

Marianne had an elder brother, Charles and a younger sister, Catherine.  It is believed that she did not receive any formal education, except for a short period in a school in Norwich, which she hated.  Marianne was adamant that she taught herself all that was to be learnt, writing in her autobiography:

“…Walter Scott or Shakespeare gave me their versions of history, and Robinson Crusoe and some other old books my ideas of geography…”

Flowers of the Angel's Trumpet and humming birds, Brazil by Marianne North
Flowers of the Angel’s Trumpet and humming birds, Brazil by Marianne North

However the status and wealth of her father ensured that his children were well educated and often had the opportunity to mix with artists and musicians.  Marianne was said to have had a penchant for singing and as a child was given vocal lessons by Charlotte Helen Sainton-Dolby, the well-known English contralto, composer and singing teacher.  Unfortunately as a teenager her singing voice gave way and she began to concentrate on her other love – drawing and painting.  Life was good for Marianne.  As a young teenager, she had basked in a life of prosperity.  It was a privileged life.  Winters were spent at their Notting Hill house in London.  In the spring, they would move back to their large family home in Hastings.  During the summer months she and her family would either spend time on their farmhouse in Rougham, Norfolk, which had once been the laundry of Rougham Hall, once owned by her ancestors.  Alternatively, they would stay at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire which had been inherited by Marianne’s step-sister, Janet.  In the late summer of 1847 Marianne’s father took his family on a European tour which lasted almost three years.  Throughout this time Marianne studied flower painting, botany, and music.  On arrival back to London Marianne wanted to continue with her love of drawing and painting and it was arranged for her have some lessons in flower painting from a Dutch painter, Miss van Fowinkel and the English flower painter, Valentine Bartholemew, who had held the position of Flower Painter in Ordinary to the Queen from 1849 until his death thirty years later.

Marianne’s mother, Janet, who had increasingly become an invalid, died in January 1855.  The relationship between mother and daughter was nowhere as strong as the one between her and her father.  Marianne talked about her mother in her autobiography and commented:

“…On the 17th of January 1855 my mother died.  Her end had come gradually; for many weeks we felt it was coming.  She did not suffer, but enjoyed nothing, and her life was a dreary one.  She made me promise never to leave my father…”

Doum and Date Palms on the Nile above Philae, Egypt by Marianne North (c. 1880)
Doum and Date Palms on the Nile above Philae, Egypt by Marianne North (c. 1880)

With her mother gone, Marianne, aged twenty-four, took on the role as the lady of the house, looking after her father and the running of the household.   Her father, who had been the Liberal MP for Hastings on a number of occasions, would during the parliamentary recess take his two daughters off on long trips around Europe.     One of their favourite destinations was the valleys around the southern slopes of Mont Blanc and Monta Rosa.    By this time Marianne’s brother Charles had married and his father had given him the old house in Rougham. Marianne’s sister Catherine had married in 1864 and her father, Frederick North, narrowly lost his Hastings parliamentary seat by just nine votes at the General Election in July 1865 and this gave him the opportunity to set off on another voyage of discovery with Marianne travelling through Europe and the Mediterranean isles of Corfu and Cyprus before reaching Syria and Egypt.

Papyrus Growing in the Ciane, Syracuse, Sicily by Marianne North (1870)
Papyrus Growing in the Ciane, Syracuse, Sicily by Marianne North (1870)

Three years after his defeat in the General Election Frederick North was re-elected as MP for Hastings in 1868.   Marianne’s father was sixty-eight years old and his health had begun to deteriorate but this did not stop him from taking a holiday to Southern Germany with Marianne.  However during their Bavarian sojourn, he became ill and Marianne was advised to take him back home to Hastings, which she did.  Frederick North died on October 29th.  Marianne was devastated for not only had she lost her father, she had lost her greatest friend.  She recalled his death in her autobiography, writing:

“…The last words in his mouth were, ‘Come and give me a kiss, Pop, I am only going to sleep’.  He never woke again and left me indeed alone…”

She recalled how much her father had meant to her and one can feel her deep sorrow.  She wrote:

“…For nearly forty years he had been my one friend and companion, and now I had to learn to live without him, and to fill up my life with other interests as I best might.  I wished to be alone, I could not bear to talk of him or anything else…”

The Aqueduct of Morro Velho, Brazil by Marianne North (1873)
The Aqueduct of Morro Velho, Brazil by Marianne North (1873)

Marianne North carried on with her two great loves, travelling and painting the flora she saw during those voyages of discovery.  In July 1871 she set off on a long journey which would last over two years.  She arrived in Canada, travelled on to the United States, and later the Caribbean island of Jamaica. From there, in 1872, she journeyed to Brazil where she spent much of her time drawing in a remote forest hut. She eventually returned to England in September 1873. Throughout her time on her travels she would be constantly sketching the flora of the area and the landscapes.

Roadside Scene under the Cocoanut Trees at Galle, Ceylon by Marianne North (c.1877)
Roadside Scene under the Cocoanut Trees at Galle, Ceylon by Marianne North (c.1877)

In the spring of 1875 she was once again off on her travels.  This time she visited Tenerife, and later that year started her first round-the-world trip taking in the west coast of America, Japan, Borneo, Java, and Ceylon, and did not return home until March 1877.  Although she loved being in the house in Hastings and spent much time in the garden she had a wanderlust and in September 1878 this travel bug bit once again and she set off by ship to India, where she stayed for nearly six months,

Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, London
Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens, London

By this time Marianne had built up a large collection of drawings which she had completed during her extensive travels.  As they were so popular she held an exhibition of her work in a London gallery.  Having been overwhelmed by their popularity she came up with the idea that they should be housed in a permanent collection and with this in mind she approached Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Kew Botanical Gardens in London and offered to present them with her art works and to fund the building of a gallery to house them.  This was agreed and the architect James Fergusson submitted designs for the building and building work started in 1880.  Sir Joseph Hooker as well as being a director of Kew Gardens was a good friend of Charles Darwin and he was introduced to Marianne and it was on his suggestion that she should visit Australia, and New Zealand to discover and sketch the native flora and vegetation.  Marianne took up his suggestion and once again left her homeland and sailed to the antipodean.

Inside the Marianne North Gallery
Inside the Marianne North Gallery

On her return to England she set about arranging her paintings inside the newly completed gallery building at Kew and on July 9th 1882 it opened to the public as the Marianne North Gallery.

The Wild Tamarind of Jamaica with Scarlet Pod and Barbet by Marianne North (1872)
The Wild Tamarind of Jamaica with Scarlet Pod and Barbet by Marianne North (1872)

She resumed her travels visiting South Africa in 1883 and the following winter she was in the Seychelles.  All this travelling and having to endure constantly changing climatic conditions eventually affected her health and, during her later years, she was unable to live a pain-free existence.  She began to lose her hearing and in 1888 began to suffer from liver disease which finally claimed her life.  Marianne North died on August 30th 1890 aged 60.  Maybe it would be fitting to leave the last words to her sister Catherine who wrote about her sister:

“…The one strong and passionate feeling of her life had been her love for her father.  When he was taken away she threw her whole heart into painting and this gradually led her into those long toilsome journeys.  They no doubt shortened her life; but length of days had never been expected or desired by her, and I think she was glad, when her self-appointed task was done, to follow him whom she had faithfully loved…”

I have only been able to attach a few of Marianne’s numerous sketches and I am sure a visit to her gallery at Kew Gardens would be an amazing experience.  For those of you who might not be able to make that journey may I suggest you get hold of her autobiography, the book which I have been reading and from which I gleaned  most of the facts about this talented painter.   It was not an expensive book and well worth the money. It is called A Vision of Eden; The Life and Work of Marianne North.