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17 November 2014

Dutch Still Life – Well worth taking a Gander at.... or perhaps a Gobbler!!!

The latest blog post in our History of Art series written exclusively for Artists Info

By Naomi Phelan MA

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Pieter Claesz. Still Life with Turkey Pie.  1627

Still Life – a term for a the type of painting depicting objects and food, that you spend some time looking at, amazed at how beautifully it is painted, how much it looks like the real thing, before  moving on satisfied.

I like many others, have enjoyed countless satisfied minutes (and multiples thereof) gazing intently upon, even scrutinising the magnificent paintwork, the technique, the texture, the glaze of the humble Still Life,  mesmerised by the pure triumph of mastery and skill depicted.  I have even spent a significant amount of time scanning over the paintings, processing the symbolic elements of the work with regards to vanitas and momentomori - the watch symbolising the inevitable passing of time, the skull representing the unavoidable finality of death, the fly echoing the presence of decay, and the lemon peel signifying the bitterness of life, to name but a few – all very jolly! I suppose in some ways I viewed the ‘viewing’ of Still Life almost as an intellectual exercise, a moment where I would indeed pause, process all sorts of things that I had learnt from books, and be really (and I do mean really, truly) amazed at how exquisitely they were painted, before passing on to the next painting.

Recently I have been doing some further reading about the history of trade routes, and in particular about how the growth of trade and commerce effected and changed the course of Dutch mercantile enterprises back home, during the Seventeenth Century. From domestic produce of the land to exotic imports shipped in via the East and West India Companies, to the growth of European commerce, and the explosive expansion on the world stage of Far Eastern commodities, I discovered a fascinating world that altered the very way that Western society portrayed and defined itself. The more I read, the more I was drawn back to the world of Still Life. There in front of me, beautifully laid out, was the whole world depicted – had I in fact, missed the point of Still Life painting almost entirely? Could it be, thatafter all those history of art books I had read, the blogs, the OU degree and the MA, my understanding of Still Life was in such bad repair?  How was it, I realised, that the huge importance of trade depicted in these paintings had been so clearly over shadowed in many of the books I had read, by the symbolic elements - otherwise known as vanitas or momentomori. It was time to further my study, and so it was that I found my head stuck in any book going about the links between trade and art during this period, and to say my appreciation of Still Life has rocketed would be an understatement.


Still Life with Turkey Pie  1627  Pieter Claesz:

This painting, which can be found in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and is surprisingly small, measuring just (h) 75cm by (w) 132cm, and could be classed as a boring painting, beautifully painted … but boring and relatively easy to overlook.In this blog we will take a closer look at it, but first a little bit of background information to get you on your way.

Until the 16th century the Netherlands or Low countries, as it was also called (Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg today) consisted primarily of seventeen separate states governed by various dukes, counts and bishops and came under the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire, passing first from the House of Burgundy to the House of Habsburg, until in 1549 the Low Countries (which by that time was predominantly Protestant) came under the jurisdiction of King Phillip II of Spain, a staunch Catholic and demander of high taxes. In 1568 William I of Orange led a revolt against Phillip and after some eighty years of intense fightingand sacking of cities, seven of the northern provinces (the largest of which being called Holland) gained their independence - so creating a Protestant haven for others fleeing Spanish control. During the war the Dutch blockaded the main entrance to the Scheldt Riveron which the city of Antwerp (still under Spanish rule) had grown and prospered as the main trading city of the north during the 15th and 16th centuries. As a result the Dutch were able to redirect the wealth, gained through international trade to its own fast growing city of Amsterdam. Within just a few decades Holland went from lowly backwater to the Venice of the North, crowded with skilful immigrants setting up businesses, receiving the massive boats that bought much sort after goods from all over the world, and creating a modern trade, finance and commercial system that we still use today.

Added to this, the Dutch were the leading shipbuilding country of Europe. Boats were made for particularly favourable prices due to the fact that the wood and sail cloth industries were dominated by local families rather than individuals, ships were joint owned with up to 32 people investing in one ship, freight costs were the lowest in Europe and Dutch boats were able to go faster than any others produced at the time. Not surprisingly, the nation’s boats were hired by other European countries, and with so many native families and collectives investing their hard earned cash in any one voyage, the stakes for being the best and most competent on the seas were high.Overseas trade was massive, global expansion unstoppable and the curiosity and desire for all things exotic and foreign represented the essence of wealth and the ultimate display of good taste.

In 1609 the Dutch East India Company (VOC), who were usually responsible for the movement of trade between the Asian countries and Europe, commissioned the English explorer Henry Hudson to find the Northwest passage – a route across America which could take ships directly from the Atlantic, through America to the Pacific (and therefor the Far East) without having to go all the way round the bottom of Africa or South America first. This along with some other smaller trading expeditions enabled the Dutch to start colonising America from 1615 onwards, and with it the transfer of much sort after goods (Beaver fur / turkeys) back to the homeland. During that time the Dutch set up a station at the mouth of the Hudson River as it provided a good location for exchange trade with the Native American Indians, and in 1621 the Dutch West Indian Company was founded.  However the threat of attack from other European settlers forced the Dutch to protect the entrance to the Hudson River by moving to Manhattan and creating a new settlement known as Fort Amsterdam. In 1625, the director general of New Amsterdam, Peter Minuit had purchased Manhattan Islandfor the Dutch – which is just a year before this painting was finished and was of course, the subject on everyone’s lips at the time.

In our painting, therefore, the centre piece for our Still Life is of course the magnificent Turkey, representing the current affairs of the day having come all the way from America to grace the table of this ‘Banquet painting’ (banketgen – in Dutch). Decorated with full turkey regalia from head to toe literally, plumage spread in a display of grandeur, and all seated stately upon a richly decorated pie.

Whilst Mr Turkey might take pride of place, he hasn’t necessarily travelled the furthest and even objects that are partially hidden – like the table covering have just as valid claimon good taste and wealth as our good old oversized bird. The richly decorated Oriental rug underneath the beautifully ironed white cloth is in fact a prized possession. Although barely visible, the artist leaves just enough on view to let the onlooker appreciate that it is there. These rugs were imported from the Middle East (Persia), and were expensive to buy due to the workmanship involved in producing them. Cheaper alternatives known as Turkey Rugs were available, however the real thing indicated wealth and spledour and as a result would be found adorning paintings of important events. Table rugs were laid on the table and floor rugs were reserved for the floor, but were in fact far less common at this time.Over the top we are given the most beautifully clean crisp rendition of a linen table cloth. Linen production on a large scale had come to Haarlem and Amsterdam in the late 1580s, after the sacking of Antwerp in 1585 by the Spanish, which resulted in most of theProtestant linen and woollen workers fleeing to either neighbouring Holland or England for protection from Catholic persecution. As the textile industry grew under the immense talent and knowledge of the Flemish emigrants’, linen production became a worldwide and lucrative export for the Dutch.Our artist -Claesz moved to Haarlem in 1621.

On the table, apart from our bird, we also find a beautiful blue and white Chinese kraak porcelain dish. Kraak, was the (second rate) porcelain that was shipped to Europe, and particularly the Netherlands during the first half of the 17thCentury – when our painting was produced. The Chinese often put antique labels on the bottom of their export porcelain to give the impression that it was better quality than it actually was, and then kept the best stuff for them-selves. Having said that, because it was not until 1708, when Ehrenfried Walther von Tschimhaus from Saxony Germany created the first proper porcelain in Europe, even slightly less than top quality ware (by Chinese standards) was much sort after here, and indeed even today we still refer to porcelain as china.

The goblet that we see here is called a Roemer glass, and was one of the most common glass drinking vessel used by the middle / upper classes at the time when this painting was done. The Roemer (or Romer) was  a wine glass made from green glass known as waldglass (forest glass) due to the colour, and its name came from the Latin Roma or Rome, where in Roman times they drank from barrel shaped glasses decorated with nobbles of glass. The blobs on the stem also help to prevent the glass from slipping when holding it. The glass is half filled with sweet white German wine, whichwas a favourite of the Dutch and easily available considering Rotterdam lay at the mouth of the Rhine. The remaining items of table wear, apart from the knife and the nautilus cup, are made of polished pewter, and are used by the artist to show off his skilful craftsmanship and training in capturing the duel complexities of light and reflection.

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In the middle of the table we find a half-eaten pie rich with plump dried fruits and spices, not native to the Netherlands. Like the lemon, oranges, grapes, and olives they would have been imported from the shores of the Mediterranean, or even further afield such as the East and West Indies (Indonesia and the Caribbean) for the spices. We see indigenous oysters and nuts, and bread that although made locally, would have been created from grain imported from the Balkans, as it was cheaper to import grain than to take up valuable dairy pasture land with wheat farming.

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Inside the bowl we find grapes, nuts and apples with little dark patches over them – just a tiny hint that whilst the success of global trade is the subject of the painting, it is always good to remember that these blessings from God, given by him to the (Protestant) faithful are temporary. That in time all great things - like life, will pass.

Moving round the table we also see a smaller pewter plate displayingsalt and pepper. Salt had long been an integral part of the fishing industry, all be it in a supporting role. And as the fishing industry was at its height during the 17th Century with herring being caught and then processed on board, before being delivered straight to the Balkans in exchange for grain, to have it (salt) prominently displayed was not unusual. The pepper that falls from the rolled up cone of paper had come much further, starting its journey in the Far East. Not only did it represent global trade but also considerable wealth, and by the late Middle Ages, was used as currency. It was considered so highly prized; the Dutch even have a saying – ‘peperduur’ meaning ‘pepper expensive’.

As we have seen, how and what one displays both food and tableware wise is important, to the contemporary viewer of the early to mid-1600s a beautifully adorned turkey and a banquet laid out with imported goods spoke volumes, however we have two more items that complete our masterpiece of luxury and abundance – the silver knife and the nautilus cup. Where Antwerp had been the centre of exquisite decoration during the previous century, the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain, soon enabled Amsterdam (alongside Paris) to become the undeniable leaders in decorative design during the bulk of the 17th Century (1610-70s/80s), and it is in these two objects that we see evidence of this, not through trade this time but through elegant design and superb artistry.

The knife (incidentally signed on the blade by the artist himself) has a handle decorated with the Auricular style, an ornamental style first invented in Utrecht by Flemish immigrants at the beginning of the 17th century and not resembling any design work previously seen.The term Auricular comes from the decorative elements which resemble the soft fleshy parts of the ear supported by a cartilage- like structure underneath. By the mid-1620s the style had spread across The Netherlands and taken hold in both Haarlem and Amsterdam, where patrons were keen to own the latest fashions in gold and silverware, appreciating the nonconformity of it as it added to the liberal impression the Dutch had of themselves and their unique place within the world.

And finally we come to the Nautilus cup, which can be found in many ‘banketgen’ of the day and was considered an object very ‘a la mode’ during the first half of the 17th century. Having been regularly imported to Europe from the Indo-Pacific Ocean from the end of the 16thcentury onwards, nautilus shells were admired for their ordered geometric structure and beautiful pearl like shells. They were viewed not only as desirable objects in their own right but as evidence of an ordered(by God) universe that worked on proven mathematical theories and rules. A popular export of the gold and silver-smithing workshops of Augsberg and Nuremberg these decorative cups became highly sought after by collectors all over Europe as secular drinking vessels used for ceremony and celebration.

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So there we have it, many reasons why a still life that you may have lingered on for a little while is in fact worth a second, a third and even a forth look. Why Still Life painting really can open up the world and become one of the best visual documents we have access to. I use to like Still Lifes - they interested me, and I too really appreciated the amount of skill, training and expertise that was invested in them. But now I love Still Lifes, I can look at them for ages thinking about why this or that particular object was chosen, who put them there and why? I have started to read more general history books in order to understand the lay of the land - what was happening politically, religiously, socially and commercially. No painting is an island (so to speak), and as we have seen with our Banketgen today, even where the emphasis, at first sight appears to be on technique – the subject matter is in fact, never playing the second fiddle or being just the icing on the cake.

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