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1600s, the Baroque Dutch still-lifes
During this period, still-lifes got detached from figures and portraits, but they kept their highly symbolic meanings. The Dutch reveled in a form of still-life called Vanitas or Vanity, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”, says Ecclesiastes, who despite his gloomy outlook still bothered to write his thoughts down for the posterity he didn’t believe would heed his words. And it Latin it is: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, hence this kind of still-life is called Vanitas. These paintings often depicted a human skull, which some researchers think is a still version of The Dance Macabre – Death as a skeleton dancing through a world suffering from bubonic plague. Together with the grinning skull, or grouped in various ways, there were often candles that had just been snuffed out, empty glasses, dried ink-horns, an hourglass with the last grains of sand falling. Later, objects like wilting flowers and rotten fruit and flies, got introduced. And the very ripe cheese mentioned in chapter one! The general message of these Vanities was that life is short, and transitory, all flesh is hay, and will be dust. As in this skull Vanitas painted by Pieter Claesz in the 1630s, where even the pages of the book have faded:
It is said that over a hundred painters focused solely on Vanities and other still-lifes in the Netherlands during the 17th century.
Flowers as symbols
Even the Dutch flower still-lifes had each flower carrying a symbolic meaning. The sunflower, for example, always turns its ‘face’ to the sun from morning to night, so it became a symbol of faith, or, later, blind love. Today, only a few people have studied the symbology of these paintings. An example of a floral, by van der Ast, 1622:
The above still-life depicts tulips, which were extremely expensive at that time. The economy in Holland collapsed as a result of a tulip-bulb hysteria. Nothing new on the stock market... A painting of tulips lasted much longer than the actual flowers, and their beauty could be admired for many years, indeed centuries.
The variety of still-life that is called trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”) was born in the Netherlands around 1650. Samuel van Hoogstraten is said to be the inventor of trompe l’oeils:
There is a cute story about Rembrandt’s students painting a life-looking gold coin on the floor of the studio, and the hilarity when the revered master bent down to try to pick it up. I think it tells something of his personality – the students and apprentices dared to make pranks.
Of course an artist’s paraphernalia just had to be painted in this manner. Here is a trompe l’oeil of a Vanitas and some miniatures being painted, by Cornelius Gijsbrechts 1668:
Thanks to paintings like these, we can see, in exquisite detail, how their brushes looked, and their easels and palettes, and that they indeed used mahlsticks. We also see parts of the process of painting a miniature. I was fortunate to see this large painting in real life just a couple of weeks ago. The illusion is nearly perfect. Even the Vanitas painting is subjected to time and decay, as a corner of it is coming loose and is hanging down over the painting, showing us the stretcher bars behind. Clearly wooden panels were out as a support.
Still-lifes didn’t have to have a strong symbolic meanings, but could be ‘nice paintings’, with distinct genres: kitchen table, market, breakfast table, etc. Here is a “light meal” of the breakfast table genre (but it could be eaten whenever you felt peckish during the day), by Floris Claesz van Dijck:
Imagine that you live in the 17th century, with no colour television, no glossy magazines. How would you react to such luxurious painting as these Dutch still-lifes? Probably hugely astonished at how anyone could paint something so lifelike, and you’d feel like you could reach out your hand and touch the objects, and sink your teeth into a grape.
To own a still-life was all the rage. And it virtually exploded in the next century, the 1700s.
To be continued.
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Still-lifes seem to vanish from antique art as the Roman Empire got closer to its fall. Art in general declines as the prosperity of the Roman empire gets eaten up by wars and inner strife, resulting in a division of the empire, and its fall to the invading Germanic tribes, around mid 400s AD, or CE if you prefer.
Objects turn up again as ornamentations and book illuminations during the Middle Ages, but not as proper still-lifes, as we know and define them. Objects were commonly included in portraits (showing birth, status, ruler) and depictions of saints (signing who it was).
St Bridget of Sweden (14th century), one of Europe’s patron saints, is often depicted as carrying a model of the church she caused to be built, or as writing her revelations in a book, as seen in this book illumination:
Most of the paintings from Medieval times that are preserved into our times have religious motifs. The saints and their attributes were codified, and if you know the code, you can see at a glance who is depicted in a painting.
Up and into the 1600s
Next illustration of the principle is of a later date, the 1600s, which strictly isn’t medieval, but as Sweden were a bit behind in adapting what was the latest fashion on the continent, and as we’re moving forward in times in this Breeze, let’s make a bridge to the 17th century by taking a look at a more developed portrait utilizing still-life as a “name-tag”.
To show that the below painting isn’t just any man in a tin suit, we have a still-life of objects to the left: A king’s crown and the “apple of the realm” a globus cruciger symbolizing dominion over the world. (A symbol used by the Roman emperors, and the idea was appropriated by the Swedes.) The objects rest on a mantle of ermine. Ah, clearly a King! Then there is a knight’s helmet, and some other objects indicating war, and we can deduct that this is a warrior king. The Swedish king Karl X (Charles X, 1622-1660) was leading the armies in the 30 year war as a general, before being elevated to kingship in 1654 by his abdicating cousin, the reigning Queen Christina
And a detail:
But proper still-lifes were just starting to be revived, and we'll look into that in part 4.
To be continued.
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There is a lot of archeological and historical material from this era. The empire prospered economically, and in good times a larger number of people decorate available surfaces just to please the eye. As the Romans to a large extent regarded themselves as a continuation of the Greek culture, a lot of the art was very similar to Greek art.
A close-up of a simple Roman still-life, with a glass vase/pitcher, and some fruit that looks like peaches, but probably are something else, as they are greenish in colour. They are delicately shaded to show the roundness of form, and also highlighted. A piece is cut out from one fruit, showing what is inside it. The glass is depicted in the same way as in much later centuries: the highlights are painted on top of the background, and so are some darks. Here and there, we see cast shadows, with clear penumbras that are lighter and warmer than the shadows. This still-life isn’t primitive, it shows that the painter had good observation skills, and good enough skills to paint this fresco in one go.
Roman still-life B, also a close-up (due to size-restrictions on this blog) shows an elaborate green glass bowl overflowing with fruit, and the charming addition of a bird interested in what’s offered. Some of the fruit is clearly clusters of grapes. I find it really interesting that the fruit seen through the bowl is painted so skillfully and believably. An effort has been made to make the bowl look round, with reflections on both sides, and a highlight at the front. Obviously, the glassblowers had high level skills in making glass-objects, and the painters in depicting them as frescoes.
Still-life C is from Pompeii, that treasure of knowledge of life in Roman cities. (If you ever are in the vicinity -- go there! It is the antique site that has made the greatest impact on my senses, and my understanding of antiquity.)
Lo! A glass blowl, filled with fruit. I think we can draw the conclusion that elaborate glass was to be treasured and showed off. Pomegranates, with one cut open. Juicy grapes. The artist is really showing his skill-level in the blue-green glass that looks so life-like, while the amphora is clearly an object made of fired clay. It is hard to judge from a photo, but it seems like the use of colour was rather advanced. The glass bowl has a purplish-red streak along its edge, just the kind of colour-reflection the grapes would cause. The shadow-planes are not merely blackened versions of the other colours, but colours in themselves. Look at the little amphora, how the shadow is coolly greenish, while the part in light is yellowy and orangey! This fresco must have been spectacular when freshly painted. Pliny the Elder (quoted in post 1 of this series) was right.
To be continued, with the Middle Ages.
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Still-lifes lead quite a quiet life beside portraits and landscapes. I find the micro universe of still-lifes fascinating. They are complete worlds of colour, light, shadows, form, shape, and symbology. This “poor relative” in the family of genres deserve better treatment, and is currently in the beginnings of what looks like it is going to be a revival.
Looking at still-lifes through history, one may discover that they really are interesting. They mirror their times, the culture, and the overall paradigms, and also indicate paradigm shifts.
Let’s start by looking at the word “still-life” in some languages.
French: nature morte
Italian: natura morta
Spanish: naturaleza muerta
In the case of Roman languages, the ‘morte’/’morta’ doesn’t exactly mean dead, in this context, but more ‘inanimate’. So, still-life would be ‘inanimate nature’.
The German “still” is similar to English ‘still’, as in ‘be still’, ‘stand still’. German “leben” is ‘life’, ‘living’.
OK, we get it – inanimate objects sitting still, posing for a portrait. Now, what about flowers, fruit... or cheese...? Are they truly inanimate? (My husband is fond of cheese so ripe and aromatic it needs to be chained in order to not escape.... Some cheese are definitely animate.) Living things, like flowers, do not move around, so they’re considered still.
There were still-lifes in Egyptian tomb murals, but I could only find pictures of them incorporated in a scene with people. But, isolated it is a complete still-life, obviously of a genre type, as there are several based on the same pattern (1a and b).
Still-lifes existed in antique Greece, and were called “xenia”, according to one source. They were objects reserved for the comfort of guests, houseguests. Of course these objects were painted so the family could show their generous hospitality to guests, and casual visitors too. It is not unthinkable that such paintings greeted guests in the entrance hall, or on the walls in the guestrooms. I’ve personally seen still-lifes in mosaic floors in an excavated Roman villa in Cyprus.
Pliny the elder (Plinius) has described these paintings very graphically:
“Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped upon vine leaves and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking to disgorge their honey, some split apart they are so ripe…”
Unfortunately, no painting has survived the ravages of time, but frescoes and mosaics have. In the picture above, we see a mosaic with lobster and fish, and another with a simple still life of vase and birds. Maybe not strictly a still-life, but it is near enough.
These antique Greek still-lifes were meant to be a form of what many centuries later became known as trompe-l’oeil (French for “trick the eye”), mimicking reality, in Greek mimesis.
(To be continued, in a new blog entry.)
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