Still Lifes

More still lifes—of more varied types—were produced in The Netherlands in the seventeenth century than in any other country. This branch of painting was perfectly suited to the Dutch gift for describing the visible world. Trompe l’oeil paintings gave artists the opportunity to delight the public with the deceptive capabilities of their brush, while vanitas images reminded the viewer of the inevitability of death. “Breakfast pieces” featured objects and foodstuffs associated with a light meal that could be eaten at any time of day. Artists displayed their virtuosity by describing various materials and surfaces—the nubby skin of a lemon, the reflective properties of earthenware, glass, metal, and liquids. Floral still lifes reflected the Dutch passion for horticulture. In addition to the metaphorical association of flowers with the brevity of life, floral pieces often featured rare specimens that were actually too expensive to cut or that did not bloom at the same time of year. Rendered from prints, drawings, or illustrations in botanical texts, the flowers in the paintings—often in impossible arrangements too heavy for the vessels that hold them—were substitutes for actual bouquets when the growing season had passed. Exotic shells from distant lands were painted for connoisseurs to demonstrate their knowledge, worldliness, and sophistication. Carefully described and rendered with a fine brush, the flowers and shells were artistic parallels to the wonders of divine creation.

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