Although she is a foundational figure in the history of European still life painting, almost nothing is known about Clara Peeters’s biography with certainty. Early researchers confused her with other women bearing the same relatively common name, ranging from an Antwerp heiress to an Amsterdam prostitute. Most recently, Jean Bastiaensen has persuasively identified her with Clara Lamberts, who was born into an artistic family in Mechelen between 1581 and 1585. This Clara moved to Antwerp as a child, where she may have been trained by her father Nicasius Lamberts. On June 27, 1605, she married the painter Henrick II Peeters in Antwerp, whose status as a freeman of the Guild of Saint Luke would have absolved her from enrolling in her own name, explaining her absence from the guild’s records. The artist’s earliest dated painting, a still life of confectionery, wine, and a candle, dates from two years after this marriage and bears what became her standard signature: CLARA P. Although the artist’s latest dated painting is from 1621, indicating a career of some fourteen years, there are further archival records for Clara Peeters, née Lamberts, in Antwerp, The Hague, and Ghent up to the year 1637, which give hints of a relatively unsettled existence. Inventory records from the first half of the seventeenth century indicate that her work quickly attracted notice in the Dutch Republic and Spain, and two of her paintings appear to have entered the Spanish royal collection by 1666. Curiously, there are no identifiable records of her work in early modern Antwerp inventories.
Beyond this sparse documentary record, Peeters’s paintings, surviving in an oeuvre of roughly forty works, provide a few further clues about her identity. A number of her panel and copper supports bear Antwerp marks. More suggestively, six of her paintings include a so-called bridal knife, a typical wedding gift. The particular example in Peeters’s paintings features allegorical figures of faith and temperance, as well as the artist’s name inscribed down the side. This signature device associates Peeters with traditionally feminine virtues and identifies her as a married woman, at the same time as it marks her authorship of the painting. Furthermore, a number of Peeters’s paintings include self-portraits in the form of reflections on metallic surfaces. These literally self-reflexive moments within her work have made Peeters a central figure in feminist studies of early modern women artists.
Like many artists of her era, both male and female, Peeters may initially have studied with her father. Similarities between her early work and that of Osias Beert have led to the suggestion that he was her teacher. Although Peeters shared with Beert an attraction to such subject matter as Chinese porcelain and shaped candies, she quickly moved beyond his high vantage points and isolated depiction of still life elements on a table. Her paintings range from realistic meals of bread, butter, and cheese, to arrangements of precious objects that evoke the world of the Kunstkammer. Her mature work is characterized by the placement of objects on a low ledge, depicted with hard, crisp outlines against a dark background. An innovator in multiple fields of still life painting, Peeters is particularly known for her fish still lifes, of which she painted the earliest dated independent example. (In this, Peeters was building upon the example of earlier fish market scenes, such as the example by Joachim Beuckelaer in The Met’s collection [2015.146
As a flower painter, Peeters eschewed the landscape backdrops and symmetrical arrangements of such contemporaries as Ambrosius Bosschaert. She shares a comparative naturalism with Jan Brueghel the Elder, but renders blossoms with hard edges that may indicate source material in printed botanical illustrations.The Painting:
The Met’s painting depicts an opulent bouquet of flowers in a roemer glass, placed on a low stone shelf. Boldly localized use of primary colors unites the composition and causes the arrangement to stand out starkly against the shadowed backdrop. The late spring and early summer blooms range from roses to tulips, narcissi, carnations, and irises. Fallen blossoms rest on the pitted ledge, including a sprig of forget-me-nots near the artist’s signature, a typically playful self-referential device. Peeters, known for her depiction of reflective surfaces, was particularly attentive to the glass vase, with its ornamented base, serrated foot, and the glimpse of thorny stems within. A butterfly, perched on the stem of a fallen flower, animates the still life, along with dewdrops and minute insect bites on the leaves. A pair of drooping tulips, placed at the far edges of the composition, hint at the eventual wilting and decay of this sumptuous arrangement. The depiction of the chipped portion of the stone ledge offers a painterly contrast to the otherwise minute precision of the painting.
Pamela Hibbs Decoteau, author of the main monograph on Peeters’s work (1992), dates this piece to the artist’s breakthrough year of 1612, when she painted her first independent flower paintings and moved past the high vantage points and symmetrical arrangements of her presumed teacher, Osias Beert. It is among her largest and most ambitious flower paintings, most comparable to a work now in the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, that depicts many of the same flowers.
The earliest inventory records for Peeters’s paintings do not refer to her floral work and nothing of this picture’s provenance is known before the first half of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, we can assume that it was intended for the cabinet of an elite collector, an object for admiration and contemplation that uses utmost artifice to evoke the beauty of nature.Gender, Genre, and Still Life:
Clara Peeters’s critical fortunes are emblematic of those of women artists and still life painters generally. Ranked at the bottom of the academic hierarchy of genres that received its mature formulation in the seventeenth century, still life paintings were associated with the slavish imitation of nature and the lack of invention on the part of their makers. Still life paintings might be coveted collector’s items, but their prices did not necessarily convey prestige on their painters. (The 1666 inventory entries for Peeters’s two works in the Spanish royal collection describe their subject matter but do not name their painter, despite both paintings being signed.)
Because it did not require study of live models, still life painting was one genre open to female practitioners. Clara Peeters stands at the head of a long tradition of prominent female still life painters in the Low Countries, including such figures as Maria van Oosterwijck and Rachel Ruysch, who were praised by contemporary writers and had lucrative careers. But the association between still life and female practitioners did little to enhance the genre’s prestige in a critical discourse that associated genius with male invention and generative power. The rich representation of Peeters’s work in the Prado reflects its origins as a royal treasure house; the paucity, by contrast, of still lifes at The Met is indicative of its formation in an academic and critical tradition that largely overlooked both still life and women artists. Indeed, at the time of this painting’s acquisition by The Met in 2020, the museum had only one other work by an early modern Dutch or Flemish woman artist, also a flower painting (71.6
). Painted more than a century after Peeters’s still life, this bouquet by Margareta Haverman, with its dewdrops, butterfly, and hints of decay, provides a fitting bookend to the tradition of which we now recognize Clara Peeters as a founding figure.
Adam Eaker 2020
 Jean Bastiaensen, “Finding Clara: Establishing the Biographical Details of Clara Peeters (ca. 1587–after 1636),” Boletín del Museo del Prado
34, no. 52 (2016), pp. 17–31.
 Bastiaensen 2016, p. 25.
 Private collection; see Sam Segal and William B. Jordan, A Prosperous Past: The Sumptuous Still Life in the Netherlands, 1600–1700
, rev. ed., The Hague, 1989, p. 229, no. 7.
 Alexander Vergara, ed., The Art of Clara Peeters
, exh. cat. Antwerp and Madrid, 2016, p. 17.
 Vergara 2016, pp. 96–99, under no. 8.
 For the knife, see Anne Lenders, “Clara Peeters Lays the Table: Objects and Foods through the Eyes of Seventeenth-Century Viewers,” in Vergara 2016, pp. 49–65, esp. p. 57.
 See, for example, Celeste Brusati, “Stilled Lives: Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Still-Life Painting,” Simiolus
20, no. 2/3 (1990), pp. 168–82, and Martha Moffitt Peacock, “Mirrors of Skill and Renown: Women and Self-Fashioning in Early-Modern Dutch Art,” Mediaevistik
28 (2015), pp. 325–52.
 For a discussion of the links between the two artists, see Decoteau 1992, pp. 67–72.
 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, P1621.
 For a discussion of the flowers and the other paintings by the artist in which they recur, see Decoteau 1992, p. 26.
 Vergara 2016, nos. 7 and 8, pp. 92–99.