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The works of Dutch still-life artists continue to be internationally admired as unrivalled achievements in this genre because of the breath-taking rendering of materials, the subtlety of the compositions and the feats of perspective. Equally admired is the simplicity, though it is often only apparent and is rooted in subtlety. It is remarkable that these magnificent works were generally painted by artists who are not widely known. Who has heard these days of Floris van Dijck? Most people will associate the name Brueghel with Pieter, the 'Peasant Brueghel', rather than with his son Jan, whose flower paintings (cat. 3) make him one of the great masters of the still life. Who has heard of Pieter van Anraadt, the maker of the finest painted clay pipes from Gouda (cat. 46), or of Daniel Seghers, world famous in the 17th century for his matchless flower pieces? The Rijksmuseum highlights these great but little known artists in this special exhibition.
The still life in the Netherlands
The standard of Dutch still lifes of the 17th century is unparalleled. This special quality, the spell cast by the best still lifes, was achieved not just by a few but by quite a considerable number of artists.
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The earliest Dutch still lifes date from the second half of the 16th century. Pioneers such as Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaar painted market and kitchen pieces filled with meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Saverij and Brueghel won over the royal houses of Europe with their delicate bouquets composed of flowers from around the world. In about 1600 the still life in the Northern and Southern Netherlands became a separate genre and artists began to specialise. For example, Floris van Dijck excelled at cheeses, Heda at silver and Jan van Huysum at bouquets. Coorte concentrated on the refined simplicity of shells, berries and asparagus. De Heem was an absolute master of complex and extremely lavish still lifes. Besides the painters who concentrated entirely on the genre, there were others who produced occasionally still lifes. Examples of such works in the exhibition include the mysterious painting by Torrentius (cat. 11) and the 'Dead Peafowl' by Rembrandt (cat. 40).
The mastery of the rendering of materials resulted in a notable and amusing type of still life, the trompe l'oeil. The depiction, for example, of the letter board by Samuel van Hoogstraten (cat. 54) is so lifelike that it almost invites the viewer to take hold of a letter. Similarly, the documents from the room of the City Treasury General in the Amsterdam town hall in the painting by Cornelis Brize (cat. 55) look almost tangible.
The great strength of the Dutch still lifes of the 17th century lies in the accomplished rendering of materials. Their depiction would have been the great challenge for the still-life artist. How many painters tried to capture the difference between the whitish grey of silver and the bluish grey of pewter? The result is as beautiful as the actual object, or perhaps more so. For it is more than paint; it suggests a reality which the artist himself can make as attractive as he likes. The tension between our knowledge and our expectations is important here: we know that it is superbly done and appears completely lifelike because we are familiar with the objects and thus able to make comparisons. For example, Heda's 'Laid Table with Ham and a Roll' (cat. 21) shows a slice of meat and behind it the ham it was cut from. Heda manages to give the ham such volume that the weight is almost palpable. The slice, on the other hand, has no solidity at all. Yet the heavy ham and the transparent slice are depicted with the same paint.
More so than his contemporaries, the still-life painter was concerned with the imitation of materials on a flat plane. He enjoyed greater freedom than other painters because he set himself his own challenges. He was also free to place all the objects as he wished. The flower painting is not truly natural or a real bouquet, but an arrangement made by the artist, always in bloom and never wilting. The painter of food laid out on a table is even more a law unto himself. Here too the artist arranges and rearranges the inanimate objects until he finds the ideal grouping. Seen in this light, the still-life painter seems all-powerful: he adapts nature to suit his purposes, he selects objects because of the possibilities they offer him. No one has asked for this selection, except for the buyers of paintings who want to be amazed by what is 'so lifelike'. Painters set themselves high standards and aim to excel through an even subtler perspective, even shinier copper or an even harder stone jug.
Clearly, there is no point in looking for one general meaning of the still life. Through its own specific composition, subject, lighting and mood, each work has a different angle of approach. Moreover, many still lifes simply contain too many objects to have a single meaning. It is said that the idea of transience plays a significant role in all still lifes, and there is no doubt that this 'vanitas' aspect is important in some paintings. But in other cases mottoes such as 'Ars longa, vita brevis' (Art is long, life is short) or 'Non omnis moriar' (I shall not wholly die) emphasise the immortality of these works. Other still lifes contain explicit religious messages. Flowers and garlands were already seen in medieval altarpieces and miniatures. Artists such as Jan Brueghel and Daniel Seghers continued this tradition in their religious scenes, which were encircled by the same flowers and garlands. Still lifes with books, skulls and hourglasses alluded to the triumph of study and knowledge. Others sang the praises of Dutch prosperity in the 17th century: exotic fruits, flowers and fabrics, imported or documented by the East India Company, but also the foundations of the national economy - herring, bread and beer. This prosperity was achieved through industry and thrift. Certain combinations in paintings seem to come straight out of 17th-century recipe and diet books: olives must be eaten with cheese, peaches with red wine.