Saturday, May 19, 2012

Still Life Themes during the Dutch Golden Age

The masters of the Golden Age produce several different themes of paintings; here is a brief description of the most common ones:

Bouquet of Flowers: One of the reasons that these paintings were popular among the wealthy in XVII Century Holland is because paintings were considered to outlast nature and life. Having a painting with a bouquet of flowers was a secure way to have beautiful flowers to admire in winter which was pleasant and broke the monotony of the white covered landscape. Ambrossius Bosschaert the Elder was considered the “father”of this type of still life, his paintings commanded very high prices and he had many, many apprentices. His brother-in-law Balthasar Van der Ast became a famous painter on his own. or “Breakfast”: Willem Claesz Heda and Pieter Claesz were the creators and masters of the  “Small Breakfast” pieces (Ointbijtjes is Dutch for small breakfast), these pieces were displayed objects made of silver, pewter, etc., very detailed, but lacked color or the sense of lush, exoticism that characterized later works during the Golden Age. They were mostly almost monochromatic; due to the limited color palette used in most of these pieces, they look quite similar.  
There is also a theory out there that they used these colors because they were economic and also, by limiting the color palette the painters could increase their profit. A typical breakfast in the United Provinces  at the time included wheat or sometimes white bread, butter, pickled herring, cheese, fried fish. It did not included wine as seen in many of these pieces, they do not represented a typical breakfast, they were just called that way.

Banketje or “small banquet”: Banketjes were very similar to breakfast pieces but, the food items were what were typical in wealthy home in XVII century United Provinces dinner. These pieces also displayed more sophisticated objects. Heda and Pieter Claesz were the creators and masters of this style. Other masters like van Beyeren named his pieces as banketjes but they were more colourful and with richer objects, looking closer to “pronkstilleven”(see next) pieces. A normal main meal in a wealthy home would include fish or meat dishes, soup, porridge, or Hodge porridge with meat. Note that the lunch was the main meal of the day, normally eaten at noon.
Pronkstilleven or “ostentatious still life”:  This was the favorite theme of While Kalf (1619-1693) who is regarded as the “father” of this style. Adopted by  Peter Van Beyeren, Pieter the Ring, Janz Davidz de Heem, Floris Claesz van Dijck and later painters who choose sumptuous objects and very vivid colors. Pronks as they are called also included small “vanitas” items like a watch, or small insects nibbling fruits, etc. They were meant to remind the viewer of the vanity of these sumptuous objects and that life is temporary and therefore is advisable to live according modestly , something that was ingrained in Dutch traditions of the time.

Vanitas: This is a very singular style of painting that uses symbold as a `memento mori`or reminder of the transience of life. It is based on the book of Eccleasiastes 1:2, 12:8 from the Bibble where says Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Vanitas symbols like skulls, decaying flowers or fruits, hourglasses, extinguished candles or insects commonly appeared in  many other artworks of the period, they were used add a bit of the moral standard of the time to the portray of beauty or riches like in Bosschaert or De Heem flower bouquets or VanBeijeren or Kalf`s pronkstillevens.

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