Still-life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, although German and French painters (for example, Georg Flegel and Sebastien Stoskopff; 21.152.1, 2002.68) were also early participants in the development, and less continuous traditions of Italian and Spanish still-life painting date from the same period. Still-life motifs occur fairly frequently in manuscripts, books of hours, and panel paintings of the 1400s and 1500s, such as Robert Campin’s Annunciation Triptych (56.70) of about 1425, and in Petrus Christus‘s Saint Eligius of 1449 (1975.1.110). Many of the objects depicted in these early works are symbolic of some quality of the Virgin or another religious figure (for example, the lily stands for purity), while other objects may remind the viewer of an edifying concept such as worldly vanity or temperance (as in the case of Saint Eligius’s mirror and scales). Moralizing meanings are also common in independent still-life paintings of the seventeenth century, which range from such obviously didactic works as Jacques de Gheyn II’s Vanitas Still Life of 1603 (1974.1) and Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill of 1628 (49.107) to rich displays of luxury items like Abraham van Beyeren’s Still Life with Lobster and Fruit of the 1650s (1971.254). In the latter work, the pocket watch, which symbolizes the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures, may be considered more of an intellectual conceit than a sober warning against the desire for material things like the objects depicted or the painting itself.
In general, the rise of still-life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands (mainly in the cities of Antwerp, Middelburg, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht) reflects the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. Floral still lifes were especially prominent in the early 1600s, and in their highly refined execution and in their subjects and symbolism were addressed to a cultivated audience. Painters such as Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Balthasar van der Ast, Roelandt Savery, and Jacob Vosmaer often referred to herbals and other botanical texts when composing “bouquets” (like Vosmaer’s A Vase of Flowers; 71.5), which typically combined flowers from different countries and even different continents in one vase and at one moment of blooming. For many courtly collectors (for example, Emperor Rudolf II in Prague) and wealthy merchants, a flower picture was part of a private domain that included a garden with rare specimens (which occasionally cost more than paintings of them), colored drawings or watercolors of rare tulips and other unusual flowers, and a small library of botanical books and prints.
While floral still lifes were especially popular in Antwerp (Jan Brueghel the Elder and Younger were among the main practitioners; 67.187.58), Middelburg, and the court city of The Hague, the so-called monochrome “banquet” or “breakfast” still life was more common in the mercantile city of Haarlem; Floris van Dyck, Pieter Claesz, Willem Claesz Heda, and others arranged familiar foods (ham, cheese, oysters, and so on) and glasses of wine or beer on wooden tabletops. Vanitas still lifes were a specialty of Leiden artists such as the young Jan Davidsz de Heem and David Bailly. Large “market” and “kitchen” still lifes, which often include figures, were first popularized during the mid-1500s in Antwerp by Pieter Aertsen and his pupil Joachim Beuckelaer. Aertsen returned to his native Amsterdam in about 1557 and inspired Dutch painters such as Joachim and Peter Wtewael to paint similar works. The younger Wtewael’s Kitchen Scene adopts the sexual innuendo of Aertsen’s carnal motifs but misses his understatement.
In the 1650s and 1660s, when Amsterdam became the social, political, and financial capital of the Netherlands, still-life painters such as Van Beyeren and Willem Kalf (1971.254; 53.111) produced fancy pronk (display) still lifes featuring imported fruits and expensive objects such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, usually rendered in glistening light and a velvety atmosphere. In these works and later flower pictures by De Heem, Willem van Aelst, Rachel Ruysch, and the highly influential Jan van Huysum, the emphasis upon aesthetic appeal and decorative function evident in almost all still-life painting is more conspicuous than ever before. It was also in the second half of the 1600s that still lifes of dead game, or “hunting trophies” (like Jan Weenix’s Falconer’s Bag of 1695; 50.55), created an aristocratic image of country life (which is found also in pictures of live birds and animals, like Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s Peacocks of 1683; 27.250.1). In earlier decades, pictures of dead game had been more at home in the Spanish Netherlands, where Frans Snyders and his follower Jan Fyt (71.45) turned images of unfortunate fowl, hares, deer, and other animals into essays in color and texture, and into testaments of life lived comfortably on sprawling estates. By 1700, Dutch, Flemish, German, and French specialties had become less clearly distinguishable, with Dutch painters working for foreign princes and the market for still lifes growing throughout Europe. The French painters Jean Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Oudry are among the many eighteenth-century heirs to the Netherlandish tradition.
Liedtke, Walter. “Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm (October 2003)