The heart of stillness
The 16th and 17th centuries, dominated by Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer, saw the emergence of a very different art form, the still life. How did this come about?
It is indeed strange to see people and personalities in the canvases being supplanted by the breakfast table, flowers, vases and exotic fruit.
THE BEAUTY OF EVERYDAY OBJECTS: Still life paintings of Pieter Claesz (1596 - 1660); Large Roemer with Fruit, c. 1627
DERIVED from the Dutch word stilleven, "still life" in a broad sense meant "not moving materials" and the term "still life" in painting came to be attributed to the works of Netherlands' artists in this genre in 16th and 17th centuries. Unrivalled for the originality of their works, these pioneering painters made masterpieces out of commonplace kitchen utensils like kettles and knives, breakfast table with cheese, plates and wine glasses, fruits, flowers and vases.
The origins of still life paintings can be seen in the religious, political and social turmoil in the second half of the 16th century in Western Europe, that split the Low Countries (basically Belgium with its northern province of Flanders and the Netherlands) into two nations with differing religious sects Catholic and Protestant and royalist and republican.
The whole area of the Low Countries had a rich and common legacy from some of the greatest painters of the Western world. Rubens (1577-1640), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675) were the great triumvirate from the region, who filled their canvases with people, men and women drawn from Biblical and epic stories. In their paintings, they narrated dramatic religious scenes, captured a momentary, mystifying look of a character or conveyed in a single stroke the ordinary daily life of a member of the society of their day.
Strongly Catholic in his faith and a beneficiary and supporter of the royal courts, the Flemish painter Rubens was a master of the striking baroque style. A multitude of finely muscled men and full-figured sensuous women always gave strength and vitality to the works of Rubens, done in exaggerated and extravagant colours to energise and to redefine the contents.
Rembrandt, the Dutch contemporary of Rubens, took a more subdued, secular and private stand as a painter. His style had different phases. In the beginning his works were smaller in size but rich in detail with regard to jewellery and costumes. But what was basic to the works was life, character and personality. The introspective and penitent look in several of his self portraits, the strong tones with which he depicted dramatic scenes from the New Testament made Rembrandt an inward looking artist, except for his huge, incomparable "Night Watch" that had more people than any other canvas of painting.
Subtle use of light
Johannes Vermeer, within the scope and confines of the 17th century, sunlit Dutch domestic interiors, lusciously painted men and women engaged in reading, writing, or playing musical instruments. A devout Catholic like Rubens, Vermeer also painted outdoor scenes and religious themes. With a subtle "combination of light, colour, proportion and scale", the limited number of his surviving works make Vermeer rank on a par with Rubens and Rembrandt.
It is indeed strange and somewhat surprising to see the entire scene change people and personalities in the canvases being supplanted by the breakfast table, cheese, butter, kitchen utensils, flowers, vases and exotic fruits.
How did this come about?
After eight decades of war (1568 -1648) with Catholic Spain, the Protestant northern-most provinces of the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands) won their independence to become the prosperous Dutch republic, adopting Calvinism as the State religion.
The 17th century has been described as the Dutch Golden Age. The remarkable industrial and commercial activity floated by the sea trade of the East India Company made the Netherlands one of the most prosperous countries of Europe, far advanced than other nations in the banking and insurance sectors.
Affluent and very literate, the Dutch burghers sought larger homes, demonstrating their prosperity with luxurious living spaces and more art work to decorate them. Seventeenth century travellers noted that "pictures are very common here (in the Netherlands), there being scarce an ordinary tradesman whose house is not decorated with them."
Calvinist artists abandoned the idolatrous depiction of saints and religious scenes and tried their hands at a wide variety of subjects, including scenes from daily life brawls in taverns, women busy with their domestic chores, soldiers playing cards, besides landscapes and portraits.
Tabletop Still Life with Mince Pie and Basket of Grapes, 1625.
But what was phenomenal and pioneering was their masterpieces, capturing the country's wealth in still life of assorted cheese and butter, silverware, rare tulip bulbs, flower arrangements, exotic fruits from the East and souvenir shells from distant oceans.
Pieter Claesz, Master of Haarlem Still Life and the most illustrative Dutch still life painter of the period with innumerable path-breaking works to his credit, established in "Still Life With Roemer, Tazza And Watch", a level of naturalism in the arrangements that set the standard and pattern for other artists.
Roemer is a Dutch word for a drinking glass. Claesz included the roemer in almost all of his laid-table still lifes, enjoying the challenge of painting transparent materials and reflections. Claesz also painted larger banquet scenes, still lifes of smoking implements and other recreational objects such as dice and cards.
While it has to be acknowledged that the 17t h century Dutch painters had an enormous role in bringing still life works on a scale comparable to other themes of painting, one cannot overlook the contributions to still life paintings by some of the great masters of the 19th century.
Just as the attitude of the Protestant Calvinist Church made the 17th century Dutch artists turn away from religious works, the rigid attitude of the European academies, especially of the Academie Francaise that taught the doctrine of "hierarchy of genres", holding that the artistic merit of a painting was based mainly on its subject, caused a revolt among a group of painters in the 19th century. In the Academic system, the highest form of painting consisted of images of historical, Biblical or mythological significance, with still life paintings relegated to the very lowest order of recognition.
Matters came to a head when works were selected by a jury which favoured paintings that conformed to the principles of the academic art establishment for the prestigious and enormous annual Salon exhibition. Frustrated by the Salon system, the new crop of painters, dubbed Impressionists, set out to establish their own exhibition.
This was just the shot in the arm that still life painting needed, as it was stagnating after it had reached a plateau. Edouard Manet (1832-1883), who was a mentor to a group of young artists that included Claude Monet (1840-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), once remarked that a painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers or clouds. Approximately 80 of Manet's paintings one-fifth of his output were dedicated to still life.
Enriching a tradition
All the above-mentioned painters had reinvigorated the time-honoured traditions of still life painting and imbued it with unprecedented breadth of individual expression. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) painted several versions of the sunflower, considered as some of the finest and best-known specimen of 19th century still life painting.
Paul Cezanne's experiments in still life are seen as directly leading to the development of Cubist still life in the early 20th century, linking his works to the still life compositions of Picasso's musical instruments.
All this only goes to show that still life is not at all still. It is always on the move.
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