In college, Art History 101 was a class that I mostly daydreamed through. During those angsty years I had no real context for appreciating any art that was pre-modern or not irresistibly shocking. "The Renaissance" was just a few boring centuries of old white men sprinkled around Italy and the Netherlands painting dead pheasants and cheese wheels. It wasn't until later when I took my first painting class that I began to develop an actual reverence for the technical mastery of these traditional Dutch artists.
I remember trying to paint a still life of an orange in a bowl for our first assignment and feeling that I was looking at those objects for the first time. The way light and shadow wrapped around the object made it’s depth and texture seeable. The way my eyes learned that the colors of the fruit were more than just orange. It was a spectrum of white, grey, lavender, brown and yellow, too. The way its color and mass affected the bowl, and the bowl it. In order to paint a still life, you have to look at your objects with no assumptions. Painting what you see and not what you think takes some serious skill and a killer eye. So often our minds habitually fill in details so we can quickly identify a person or object, but we don’t often take the time to gaze and listen with our eyes. This is a fundamental gesture for painters, and probably a good exercise for us ordinary citizens, as well.
The word "still life" is derivative of the Dutch word "stilleven". The Dutch Golden Era was part of the baroque movement across Europe, but differed. Unlike their Italian neighbors, they often painted subjects low on the “hierarchy of genres” like still-lifes, landscapes, and scenes from domestic life. These still life paintings often were of natural and man-made objects such as fruits, vegetables, wild game, glasses, dinnerware and rumpled tablecloths. The message of these ontbijtjes, or “breakfast pieces,” was to convey the impermanence of life through images of withering flowers, tarnished silverware, meats sliced-into, or half-peeled fruits.
There were a few female still-life painters who worked exclusively with flowers. They were often painted as vases of bouquets inside the living spaces of houses, something that Dutch people could not ordinarily afford to curate in reality. Even if they could afford flowers, they were always displayed as singles to properly applaud their beauty. Fish were a common subject in still-life paintings, as it was a staple in the Dutch diet. These paintings always win my heart, with dark, tonally brown backgrounds and dim light that plays in gorgeous patterns on the iridescent scales.
Trompe-l'œil is a technique often used in still life paintings during this time and translates from French into “deceive the eye." When paintings are so realistic, they trick your eye into thinking you are looking at a three-dimensional space. This is done through shadow and light play. Many of the Dutch Golden Age painters employed this technique to create grandiose and life-like works of art. A spectrum of rich brown hues made up the bulk of the canvas.
Even in the pronkstillevens, which were much more ornate still-lifes of exotic fruits and expensive cutlery and tableware, the message of brevity of life on this planet was not lost. I think much of art alludes to this fact, whether loudly or quietly. It is a single vein that pumps through the historical timeline of art. The still-life is just that: life captured in a moment, an impossibility in exaggerated light, a bounty that exists forever, to remind you that nothing does. Set the table, get the lighting right, and eat everything on your plate. And don’t forget the wine. ;-)