Research the still life and flower painting of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age.
- Make notes on particular paintings you admire and find out about techniques.
- Research at least one with iconographic significance and discuss the meanings ascribed to the objects.
- Explore still life through the 18th to 20th centuries and discuss how the subject matter was dealt with; in particular the early Cubist approaches of Braque and Picasso.
- Consider how contemporary artists are interpreting this genre.
Specifically, this task refers to 17th century masters from what’s known as the Golden Age. Running an initial search, my first thought was just how much related to food and possessions – displays of wealth that, in effect, were the instagram posts of their day; here we are, look at how laden our tables are and how glossy our burnished goblets. These carefully posed and positioned items are not for diners, but for observers, and they say that the owner of that produce is not only wealthy enough to have it all on a table at once, but also – as this must have taken some time and food items tend to go off – to sacrifice it in the interests of having it immortalised by a reputable painter.
The skill though, is indisputable. Hyper-realistic and glossy, the meat could be wax with a varnished shine to it, and the flowers silk sprayed with water in homage to dew. The ones that struck me in particular, and I deliberately avoided those depicting dead animals or meat, included Pieter Claesz, Simon Luttichuys, Maria van Oosterwijck, Clara Peeters, and Balthazar van der Ast, although my absolute favourite is Vermeer and so I would like to include him on this list just because his work is so quiet and domestic and so often includes still life as incidental but critical elements of his work.
Looking more closely at these works I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of iconography which I’d thought to address as a separate issue but which turns out to be unavoidable once you know it’s there. Dutch 17th century artists were embedded in a Calvinist christian religious ethic and so almost every element of a still life was drenched in symbolism. I had often wondered why so many of these paintings featured skulls and now that is so obvious it barely merits mention. What is less obvious is the subtle signs associated with slightly drooping flowers, timers with sand running through them, insects – short lived and ephemeral but with special dispensation for butterflies which represent the soul and continuity.
The prevailing ideas behind these symbols or icons come from the notion of vanitas, that core theme of religion that says nothing mortal is worth anything. According to Hull in her 2013 video lecture (see below) it comes from Ecclesiastes who proclaimed ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, a commentary on earthly preoccupations with the material which quite coincidentally makes me think the writers of at least one Carry On* film were smarter than I’d imagined.
Vanitas paintings seem to have been heavily loaded reminders to anyone in the know, which may have been most of their audience, that life is short, you can take nothing with you, not even your learning and certainly not your money, so you had better be sure you are in good grace with your maker.
Many of these were, to my mind, gross and overblown which I discovered has its own term – pronk – that mercifully, again to my mind, led to an anti-pronk movement favouring simplicity. I have to thank the Saylor Academy video (2011) used in the East Tennessee Art History programme for this.
I think I had understood iconography as a much more ostensibly religious and obvious set of images and features, but this is much more subtle. The videos above make this clear but for text, I found this 2016 glossary by Zeynap Rekkati in his blog Mearto, which deals with the valuing of art, to be an invaluable guide. As Rekkati says:
When these artworks were painted, their audience could understand what messages were conveyed at the first glance. However, for a modern audience, these still-life scenes can look like just random supermarket objects.
Or as I thought them to be, 17th century Facebook posts. Now it becomes possible to examine with more insightful purpose something like this by Balthasar van der Ast:
It is a still life, or nature morte – it is dead – which conveys instantly the message of mortality. There is fruit, which stands for the ‘general transience’ of life (and in case we miss this, there is some drooping foliage down towards the right), and flowers which also are ephemeral. One of these seems to be a rose which, according to Rekkati, symbolise the virgin Mary’s suffering via their thorns. The butterfly is there, perhaps representing the soul and immortality in the less materialistic spirit world, and insects which, being short-lived (and also maybe the agents of decomposition?) lay on with a trowel the message of impermanence. Rekkati doesn’t mention birds but the Rijks museum sees them thus:
Birds are often encountered in 17th-century Dutch genre scenes, in which they usually have a sexual connotation because the Dutch word ‘vogelen’ (birding) means to engage in sex.
which puts quite a different perspective on the otherwise innocuous picture. In the same vein, and it’s hard to make it out, there are shapes under the shelf which may be snails and which also carry sexual connotations, this time relating to the immaculate conception, reportedly because people were unable to figure out how snails mate.
This brings me a long way from seeing these paintings as somewhat overblown, even schmaltzy, pieces of self promotion. Rather than saying look how rich I am (although some probably are), they’re reminding everyone how materialistic they are and how this will not carry them through to their heavenly destination. Heavy duty art. There is hope though, and hope is a butterfly.
It’s difficult for me to pick one ‘I admire’ as per the task, because really I’m not fond of this style at all. The ones I find most striking though, and that I might replicate somewhere if possible, is the dramatic black (or very dark) backgrounds that sit behind many of the flower arrangements. It seems to me that drama of this kind takes immense skill otherwise black/very dark might simply deaden the whole image instead of popping it out. This one for instance by an unnamed artist of the Antwerp school c1650s (via Bridgeman education) to me exemplifies this technique and is as simple as the vanitas pieces are complex. The deep blue, repeated beneath for the shelf and given a lighter tone to distinguish it, throws the tonally consistent flowers forwards and makes them the only thing to look at in the frame. I found some contemporary photographic replications of this style in which the items shown and the colours used make the same dramatic statement. These will appear further along in this discussion.
As to techniques, I was surprised to find that many painted on panels (and the piece above is on copper). This for instance, by Balthasar van der Ast who reportedly used this particular painting as a kind of all-in-one catalogue, showing what he could do and also the quality of paint, especially the blue and the reds, he could deliver:
This unattributed but well-referenced piece titled The Highly Systematic Methodology of Dutch 17th century Painting Techniques discusses technique in seven categories:
- canvas – the article talks about canvas becoming a more available support during the 16th century, and readily available by the 17th. This must have made the production of paintings both cheaper and less weighty to move around, although on recent visits to galleries I’ve noticed a resurgence in metallic supports, particularly aluminium.
- ground – I like this quote as it resonates my reluctance to waste paint:
if one were working on canvas, they might use the mixture of pigments and oil created from cleaning their brushes to prepare their canvas.
The idea that some of these masters were reusing/recycling their resources appeals to me although I doubt this was an ecological choice.
- underdrawing – this surprised me:
Occasionally the drawing was applied over the priming layer but more often than not it was beneath it, on top of the ground. The design would be drawn, more or less precisely, in silverpoint, black chalk or ink.
I think I’m understanding the priming to be one layer of pigment from brush cleaning and ground to be another, with the underdrawing sometimes being beneath the latter. Complex underdrawings were sometimes achieved using a metal pin.
- imprimatura – I haven’t found a definition of this term other than one relating to ownership/authorship or licensing, but here it seems to refer to yet another layer of medium, the function of which is to isolate the ground and add a colour priming wash to underpin the actual painting. Today’s techniques, particularly when using acrylics, are remarkably simple in comparison.
- dead colouring – yet another wash layer:
Following the imprimatura, one would ‘lay an even, flat wash of colour for each individual object to be depicted. Dood-verf or dead-colour formed the basis for depiction of forms which would be worked up in finer detail from this uniform tone.
I really can’t conceptualise this. Maybe it has to be seen in action.
- binding medium, – this, often oil or egg tempurer which possibly artists made themselves was used to bind pigment together and improve adherence to the canvas. Again, how simple are our present day methods by comparison.
- pigments – as we might expect, there were documents in which the best ways of using, or mixing, or applying pigment were described – the wikipedia of their day and probably much pored over by anyone wanting to get the best from their materials.
There are probably descriptions of individual techniques that I’m missing here; brush, pigment, support, ground preferences. Today we might be inclined to add music which, while not a medium having a direct impact on a visual product, certainly one that many people would choose to set a mood appropriate to the work, or just to screen out extraneous sounds that irritate and distract.
18th – 20th century still life
The obvious ones would be Cezanne, Van Gogh, Braque, and Picasso and for me the massive attention given to many of these pieces wears them a little thin – although I have to confess to having no real insight into Braque’s Cubist approach. I understand the theory behind it – the idea of bringing three dimensionality to painted images by incorporating several views in one place – but I find it hard to relate to. Cezanne’s work I find to be brighter than van Gogh’s, possibly because his strokes are more angular and defined. This article by Kelly Richmond-Abdou in My Modern Met (2018) juxtaposes examples of each, which is probably the first time I’ve had the opportunity to make that distinction.
I came across Giorgio Morandi recently via the drawing module and found his simple, very quiet style much more interesting. He’s a proponent of tone rather than line, and of understatement and stillness, and I wondered whether this was a reaction to the turbulent times (two world wars) through which he had been living and working, an attempt to keep some thing, any thing, quiet and undisturbable. Although his earlier work seemed to me to be much darker and a little less contained, as in this piece for instance from 1936:
Later paintings seem reflective of the ice cream colours that began to prevail post WWII and that I recall seeing in 1950s open air swimming pools and holiday seafronts.
More recently, I found these by photographer Paulette Tavormina while searching for Dutch flower artists and my goodness, the vibrancy there is in these pictures. Tavormina is explicitly going for the Dutch Golden Age style in her photography. David Sim, in his article about her work, quotes her thus:
“I have long been drawn to the 17th century Old Master still life painters Giovanna Garzoni, Francesco de Zurbarán, and Adriaen Coorte. I am particularly fascinated by Zurbarán’s mysterious use of dramatic light, Garzoni’s masterful compositions and colour palette, and Coorte’s unique placement of objects.”
And it shows.
I know very little about 21st century still life artists and so I ran a search to see what caught my eye and this Pinterest page came up which led to another specialising in Daryl Gortner’s hyper-realistic and very colourful – also quite confection-focused! – work. This is a clip from that page, accessed 16th February 2020:
This is Daryl Gortner’s website where it is clear, in case anyone was in doubt and let me say I was, that these are oil paintings, not photographs, the effects achieved by layer upon layer of “painting and glazing, providing intense depth and richness.” Also an absolutely meticulous attention to detail and extraordinary skill.
Looking finally at the ways in which 21st century artists are interpreting the still life genre, I found a lot of photography and a great deal of commentary on modern life, which is not unexpected although today’s messages are less about our relationship with a god, as with those other gods of commercialism and politics.
This article by Mike Petry in The Guardian (2013) lists ten artists, some of them photographers, some sculpters or painters, and one very definitely replicating the Dutch iconographic style, but most delivering a message of some kind relating to contemporary issues. Rebecca Scott, for instance, comments on “the fictional notion that by buying some new tableware she could or should make her home perfect”, while Martin Collishaw “seemingly remakes a 17th-century Dutch still life but as a contemporary photograph”, and Gabriel Orozco ” used a pencil to mark out a map of a lost life. The starkness reminds us that beneath flesh and blood, our own skulls lie hidden“. A less ostentatious version, perhaps, of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum skull.
Artists, as ever, are speaking to audiences even though there are times when the audience is not listening or it doesn’t understand the message. Maybe we should sometimes be clearer.
Rekkati, Z. (2016) Decoding the hidden meanings in still life painting. Mearto.com
Richmond-Abdo, K., (2018) How artists have kept still life painting alive over thousands of years. My Modern Met.
Petry, M. (2013) The 10 best contemporary still lifes. The Guardian, 19th October 2013.
*For the benefit of frustrated head-scratchers, it’s Kenneth Williams in the 1964 film, Carry on Cleo, protesting “Infamy, infamy – they’ve all got it in for me!”