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