Research: 17th century Dutch still life and the development of still life

Looking at the work of 17th century Dutch still life and flower painters, I am drawn to the ‘vanitas’ genre.

‘ A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent.’ source:https://global.britannica.com/art/vanitas-art

I believe that embracing our own mortality is the key to enjoying and embracing life now. I also love the beauty of  skulls and bones.

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Jaques de Gheyn II ‘Vanitas still life’  oil on wood

source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1974.1/

‘The skull, large bubble, cut flowers, and smoking urn refer to the brevity of life, while images floating in the bubble—such as a wheel of torture and a leper’s rattle—Spanish coins, and a Dutch medal refer to human folly. The figures flanking the arch above are Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and weeping philosophers of ancient Greece.’

I think this is absolutely beautiful. The use of light reflection on the metal vases and coins contrast with the darker, shadow areas. the skull is grinning at you in a slightly comical but sinister way, with the missing teeth at the front. I am intrigued by the glass bubble; the wheel of torture and leper’s rattle depicted within as reflections must have come from imagination? When I see a human skull, I think of who once lived within, and what their life was like.

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‘Still life with a skull and a writing quill’ Pieter Claesz

source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/49.107/

This is also beautifully lit and detailed, with similar colours to the de Gheyn painting. The skull also has its front teeth missing and the lower jaw is not there.The overturned glass affords fleeting reflections, as did the glass bubble previously. The quill and book suggest the efforts of a writer, which will remain along with the skull after death.

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This is a vanitas painting that I found in the Brian Sewell auction at Christies in London. (sorry – it is not good focus) Early 18th Century oil on panel, German school. What intrigued me is that skull seems wrong somehow, I am sure it is the wrong shape. I spent a while looking at it but couldn’t really work it out. It has a lit candle, book, drapery, clock and mirror. But the skull is too wide, or misshapen in some way!

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/focus-dead-standing-things-still-life-1660-1740

There is some interesting information on here. It seems the William Sanderson, writing in 1650, referred to still life as ‘dead standing things’ (I actually wish they had kept that term, 🙂 ) Still life comes from the Dutch ‘Stilleven’

Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle 1914 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Lent by the National Gallery 1997 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L01895
Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle 1914 Pablo Picasso 1881-1973 Lent by the National Gallery 1997 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L01895

Picassos ‘Bowl of fruit, violin and bottle’, oil on canvas, is a still life typical of his synthetic cubism period. He has used dots, silhouettes and grains of sand to describe the various objects. This is a long way from the realism of 17th century still life. The colours are muted and it takes a while to work out what you are actually looking at.

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 Georges Braque 1882-1963 Purchased 1961 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00445

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 Georges Braque 1882-1963 Purchased 1961 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00445

This painting is of fish and bottles, which is a theme that Braque used extensively throughout his career. The whole picture has been fragmented into planes and lines; to me, it appears as if the fish and bottles are on some steps. I really do like this painting.  I think the colours are beautiful;  the orange complements the greenish blues. I like the way the daubs of paint give energy to it. I am wondering if one might paint in this style with the aid of a fractured glass to break up normal vision and afford a different perspective of reality? Something to try in the future, maybe.

08_tres_naranjasContemporary Spanish artist Antonio Fuertes paints classical still lifes of mainly fruit. He layers at least 15 layers of paint to achieve beautiful contrasts of light and dark; the fruit appears to glow with light. There is an interesting short video on his website that shows the progression of one of his paintings. So Fuertes interpretation of this genre is inspired by the old classical master such as Rembrandt, Valaquez and Ribera.

source: http://www.antoniofuertes.nl/portfolio.htm

Sweet Bowl 1967 Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04081
Sweet Bowl 1967 Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04081

Patrick Caulfield painted pop-inspired still lifes. This is bold and striking, using different shades of blue, with some reds and yellows of the sweets showing in the bowl.

I have also been looking at the work online of artist Abdi Asbaghi.  http://www.abdiasbaghi.com/ His still lifes have a strange, surreal quality to them. Some objects are wrapped in paper, which is an idea I may well steal for a future still life of my own!

 

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Author: Wendy Kate

Happily sharing my life with a tall bearded man from Dorset and a crazy wild animal masquerading as a tabby cat.

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