Category Archives: Project 1: Composition: The Still Life Genre (Early Dutch)

Part 2: Project 1: Composition: The Still Life Genre (Early Dutch)

As suggested in the OCA text book I’m splitting my research into parts.

Firstly traditional approaches to Still Life by sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century century Dutch painters (though I might widen it slightly to Northern Europe as nothing works in isolation especially the art world where there is constant cross fertilisation of movements, ideas and technical innovation… for example in Musee d’Orsay, Art and Architecture by Peter J. Gartner it’s clear that artists were influenced both by the historical and political setting in Paris – by technical developments like photography – by the provinces – by the Oriental style of art – by Japanese wood prints and by other artists in Europe)… so too for the artists in any epoch.

Secondly, how the genre was interpreted by nineteenth-century artists like Paul Cezanne. And finally how young contemporary artists are working in the genre today.


An introduction is necessary because as I do my research the role of the market becomes increasingly important.

Most importantly, if you do something full time you are going to get better at it.

A full time professional artist has to sell his work consistently and earn enough to pay all his/her bills. This might seem blindingly obvious but it has only just hit me. That’s why art flourishes in rich stable societies and withers in unstable (war torn) impoverished ones.

With that in mind the artist either has to sell a few expensive paintings or lots or lots of cheap ones. I don’t know the cost of artists materials in the 1600’s but suspect they were relatively dearer than today. If a canvas, oil paints and framing now costs up to £100 a painting you would have to sell at least one a week at at £600 (£500 profit) to earn £26,000 a year, just below the median income for 2015.16 of £27,600. There are not many ‘ordinary’ people that can afford £600 for a painting in the living room, so your buyers are rich individuals, corporations or the state.

And if you can’t earn a living you can’t paint full time unless you are supported by a benefactor or prepared to starve in a garrett. If you have to work in a ‘day job’ your art is squeezed into free time after a tiring day’s work and between other commitments.

That being the case today, I would suggest it was also the case in the sixteenth-century and seventeenth century.

Which puts some very important criteria in place.

Foremost the work would have to please it’s sophisticated buyer. To do that it would have to be of a very high technical quality and be something they ‘approve of’, either for it’s meaning or aesthetics (or a combination of the two).

(1) Still Life by sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Dutch painters

This is a quote from Rijks Museum (but I didn’t save the link and can’t find it now)… “Still-life was one of a number of new genres in painting that became popular in seventeenth-century Holland, after the collapse of religious patronage in the previous century (as did landscape, domestic interiors, and townscapes).”

Religion was the equivalent of a present day multinational corporation – so if one monolithic source of work dried up what replaced it? It was replaced by rich individuals created by the  urbanisation of the northern and Spanish Netherlands. These people weren’t bound by a single set of beliefs or doctrines and were free to buy art to suit their varied personal tastes. Hence the rise of different genres.

Equally in still life it led to sub genres serving different markets around the urban elite and their concerns over home, personal possessions, the transience of life, trade, education and commerce. So, there wasn’t just one still life genre with a single subject and message… but many, and these also changed over time as the new genre matured.

Additionally there was still the aristocrats who celebrated the image of the country life with paintings of dead and living animals.

All that said and however rooted in the lives of the buyers the still life genre (an arrangement of objects in the foreground) there must be some artistic ‘truths’ (aesthetics, colour, composition)  that transcend the time of their creation. So, I think this Research Point should look to look at those as well as subject matter, and meaning which are rooted in time.

Different types of still life:


(a) Started in the early 1600’s it involves a highly refined execution with the painters often referring to herbal and botanical texts. They were painted for wealthy merchants and courtly collectors who often had a garden with rare specimens costing more than the paintings, as well as a small library of botanical books and prints.

Leading painters in this field include: Ambrosius the Elder (1573-1621)

Still life with flowers, 1607 (oil on copper)

JMT332565 Still life with flowers, 1607 (oil on copper) by Bosschaert, Ambrosius the Elder (1573-1621); 25×19 cm; Private Collection; © John Mitchell Fine Paintings; Flemish, out of copyright

Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94 – 7 March 16570),

Floral Still Life with Shells, 1622 (oil on copper)

STM620449 Floral Still Life with Shells, 1622 (oil on copper) by Ast, Balthasar van der (c.1593-1657); 33.5×22.2 cm; Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA; Museum Purchase; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.

Roelandt Savery (1576 – buried 25 February 1639), and Jacob Vosmaer (1574, Delft – 1641, Delft)

Looking at all these images on Bridgeman Educational library there seems to be a common composition for the early paintings as exampled above.

A small bunch of highly elaborate flowers taking up the top two thirds of the picture plane. The bottom third being split between a small shelf decorated with a few carefully placed objects – usually a shell (an oriental reference and a collectors item at the time) and an insect (symbolic of death and the transience of life/beauty)… there seems to be an insect – often a butterfly on all the paintings. The background is usually plain and dark with the flowers (roughly forming a pyramid shape above the vase).

Often the flowers were in bloom at different times of the year and from different times of the year so these were not fresh cut flowers put in a vase and painted as I had assumed, and as we might do today. But a very carefully and totally artificial construct for a specialist audience. On Floral Still Life with Shells by Balthasar van der Ast every single flower is different.

Even the composition of these paintings from different artists is similar: a large flower on top, two on the right, one on the left and the middle filled in with smaller flowers. So quite formulaic.

To the modern eye (my eye) they look like botanical drawings rather than painted flowers. Illustrations not art and however skilful more informative than aesthetic.

Like the flowers they depict they are a collectors item.

The insects are a symbol of Vanitas so a symbol of their time.

All of which is a million miles away from my assumption that they were early versions of painting a vase of flowers.


Was the painting of food most notably ham, cheese, oysters, and glasses of wine or beer on wooden tabletops. This was the speciality of Haarlem.

Floris van Dyck (c1575-1651)

Still Life with Cheese, c.1615 (oil on panel)

XOS2909721 Still Life with Cheese, c.1615 (oil on panel) by Dyck, Floris Claesz. van (1575-1651); 82.2×111.2 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; ( The food on this Dutch table, laid with an expensive Haarlem damask tablecloth, is presented in porcelain bowls and plates. The little dish with olives may be an early European imitation of Chinese porcelain. Van Dijck’s clients were mainly wealthy merchants and other members of the elite, who in addition to paintings also owned substantial amounts of Asian porcelain. ); Dutch, out of copyright


Pieter Claesz (c1597-1660)

Breakfast, 1646 (oil on canvas)

BAL236685 Breakfast, 1646 (oil on canvas) by Claesz, Pieter (1597-1660); 60×80 cm; Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia; Dutch, out of copyright


Willem Claesz Heda (December 14, 1593/1594 – c. 1680/1682)

Still Life, 1642 (oil on canvas)

XIR169069 Still Life, 1642 (oil on canvas) by Heda, Willem Claesz. (1594-1680); 59×75 cm; Musee d’Art Moderne, St. Etienne, France; Dutch, out of copyright

Looking at examples of ‘Banquet’ still they all have some basic elements such as a dark background, tabletop with tablecloth, some kind of goblet, and some sort of high point be that a pile of cheeses/tea urn or huge goblet, a plate sticking out over the table and an orange with peel attached.
Two things strike me about these paintings. Absolutely they are designed and carefully arranged. This is not a natural arrangement of objects from your breakfast or dinner. And they are sumptuous to look at.
They are aesthetically pleasing, a sort of ‘still life landscape’ – with the landscape being food. Which is always nice to look at. And it advertises the wealth of the owner… this is the food he can afford to eat and celebrate in his paintings. He is rich and successful and can enjoy the best food.
The orange peel is a Vanitas symbol for the ephemeral quality of life, a nod to the worthless nature of human indulgences and the Christian view that life is attractive to view but bitter to taste.
Still, it does not overwhelm the paintings and is incorporated into the composition, so much so that until I read it’s significance I just thought it was another part of the painting.
My guess is that although these are of their time – most people now can afford ham or an occasional oyster (they are certainly not the reserves of the wealthy anymore) – they will have travelled through time quite well as their overriding appeal is aesthetic. It’s just the subject matter that has aged.
And we now have many more ways of showing wealth so I would be surprised to find anything similar in modern still life… but we’ll see.


These were a specialty of Leiden artists and were symbolic works emphasising the emptiness of life (from a Christian perspective). They stressed the traditional Christian view that earthly goods and pursuits were worthless and life transient.

And by inference that the only truth and reality was to do away with earthly pleasures and devote yourself to God in the hope of eternal life.

Common symbols were skulls (death), rotten fruit, (earthly decay), bubbles (life is over in an instant), smoke (life is in-substantive), musical instruments (?), butterflies (short lifespan), fruit… which will rot, and a peeled lemon (life looks attractive but is bitter to eat).

In that these symbols often appear in other still lives it is likely that death and religion were a big part of the mindset of the time.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (c. 17 April 1606, Utrecht – before 26 April 1684, Antwerp)

Vanitas (oil on panel)

XIR191408 Vanitas (oil on panel) by Heem, Jan Davidsz. de (1606-84); 30.9×48 cm; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen, France; Giraudon; Dutch, out of copyright

David Bailly (1584–1657)



The background here has become a real setting – the market and countryside or the kitchen and can include people.

They were first made famous in the mid-1500s in Antwerp most notable by:

Pieter Aertsen (Amsterdam, 1508 – 3 June 1575)

The Meat Stall, 1568 (oil on canvas)

NOR61562 The Meat Stall, 1568 (oil on canvas) by Aertsen, Pieter (Lange Pier) (1507/08-75); 123×175 cm; Private Collection; Noortman Master Paintings, Amsterdam; Dutch, out of copyright

It’s definitely a still life – it’s a study of arranged objects in the foreground that covers and dominates the whole picture plane. I don’t see this as a real stall, it’s too aesthetic… the sausages draped over the cloth for example.

The man feeding the chicks is a little distracting as are the line of people in the background, but they give it a setting. It would feel very odd to see this against a plain background.

Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1533 – c. 1573/4)

Kitchen Interior, 1566 (oil on panel)

XIR93879 Kitchen Interior, 1566 (oil on panel) by Beuckelaer or Bueckelaer, Joachim (c.1530-73); 109.5×139 cm; Louvre, Paris, France; Giraudon; Netherlandish, out of copyright

As before this is definitely an arrangement of objects… including the girl. It feels as though she has been ‘placed’ as another object. Not as a person with feelings and emotions. It’s not her kitchen… the objects do not illustrate her personality.

In looking through these some do shift into portraits with a big still life element, or ‘social’ painting… with a big still life.

So, I’d say not a pure still life but defined as such because the still life element dominates.


These featured expensive expensive objects such as imported fruits, Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware and silver-gilt cups glittering and sprinkled with fairy dust.

They were found mainly in Amsterdam, which by the 1650s and 1660s was the capital of the Netherlands and awash with riches from global trade. The social, political, and financial capital full of rich merchants and artists eager to please them.

These are aesthetic and decorative displays of wealth which would mirror the owner’s lifestyle and riches.

But not much meaning.

Van Beyeren (c. 1620, The Hague – March 1690)

Still Life: Banquey Piece (oil on panel)

YAG23511 Still Life: Banquey Piece (oil on panel) by Beyeren, Abraham Hendricksz van (1620/1-91); 109.2×88.9 cm; © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), UK; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.


This is sparkling with light… like a Hollywood Medieval film set of the 40’s.

Crammed and bursting… it reminds me of Rococo? But not quite as decorative… heading in that direction.

I love the way the lemon peel (still the Vanitas symbol!) becomes the gold braid of the opulent tablecloth and takes a little bit of light into the dark underneath which would otherwise be a black hole.

The empty but visible alcove in the top right offsets the darkness on the bottom left. Lots of composition other than the still life going on here.

Willem Kalf (1619 – 31 July 1693)

Still Life With A Chinese Porcelain Jar (oil on canvas)

IMA1560461 Still Life With A Chinese Porcelain Jar (oil on canvas) by Kalf, Willem (1619-93); Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA; ( Willem Kalf (1619-1693); Dutch 1669 30 3/4 x 26 in. Visual Works: Paintings oil on canvas); Gift of Mrs. James W. Fesler in memory of Daniel W. and Elizabeth C. Marmon; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.

Here the focus is tighter but still sparkling.

The plain white tablecloth of the breakfast still life has been replaced with the rich rug and marble top.

Still the plain background – still the lemon peel – and this time the tiny bird key breaking into the darkness bottom left.


The simple vase of flowers has become elaborate and beautifully lit. A much more opulent display that seems to be less about the individual blooms that the effect of the whole.

Much more decorative and aesthetic than the early flower paintings.

Willem van Aelst (16 May 1627 – in or after 1683)


The background is still relatively plain but now defined by light. The base features as expensive marble.

But we still have the butterfly (though it looks more like a moth?) and roughly triangular composition.

Interesting to note the rim of the flowerpot? in the shadow has been highlighted to give it definition.

Rachel Ruysch (3 June 1664 – 12 August 1750)

Vase of Flowers, 1695

BAL2635 Vase of Flowers, 1695 by Ruysch, Rachel (1664-1750); Private Collection; Dutch, out of copyright

Not as showy and the only woman artist. Feels more modern in its bouquet approach, like a handful of flowers has just been left on the surface.

I love the design of this almost in a star shape, the colour composition and buzzing insects – must be a hot day.

Still a dark background but a totally different feel than the early flower paintings.

Jan van Huysum (15 April 1682 – 8 February 1749)

Still Life

BAL5338 Still Life by Huysum, Jan van (1682-1749); Alexander Gallery, London, UK; Dutch, out of copyright

Another cornucopia display of floral glory.


Like the earlier market still life this  has a background… in fact almost a quarter of it could be a landscape painting. But they are both definitely an arrangement of objects – the living birds don’t look alive… the look like arranged objects!

This was popular in the second half of the seventeenth-century and showed the owner lived an aristocratic country life.

Jan Weenix (between 1640/1649 – 19 September 1719 (buried))


Interesting in that there appears to be both an animal still life and a ‘flower’ still life in one painting.

The tranquil swan on the water strikes me as ironic as do the mill chimneys in the background – but that’s probably just a modern sensibility.

It seems a strange mixture of dead birds, human objects and an overturned vase of flowers. And to say it’s outside no insects – which makes the butterflies on the flowers inside even more symbolic.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (c. 1636 – 3 April 1695)

A Pelican and other Birds near a Pool, Known as ‘The Floating Feather’, c.1680 (oil on canvas)

XOS2909699 A Pelican and other Birds near a Pool, Known as ‘The Floating Feather’, c.1680 (oil on canvas) by Hondecoeter, Melchior de (1636-95); 159 ×144 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; ( Commissioned by William and Mary for Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn.); Dutch, out of copyright

Again an ‘assemblage’ of objects in the foreground (this time birds)… which all look stuffed?! even though they are set in ‘natural’ poses in the puddle. Like the early flower paintings they seem to be a collection of rare and expensive specimens.


Several things have struck me researching these Dutch painters.

Individual painters regularly crossed boundaries between the different still life subjects, especially Vanitas and flowers. And generally there was a lot of hybridisation with elements of one still life (such as flower painting) taking on symbols from another type of still life (like a butterfly in flower painting). This suggests there were basic principles (aesthetics) in the arranging of objects and painting of surfaces that could be applied to different subjects.

Secondly there appears to be have been a battle going on between the message (stronger in the early sixteenth century) and the aesthetics/decorative elements (stronger in the late seventeenth century).

The message could be religious that life is short and heaven is eternal (like the Vanitas paintings); or secular such as a visualisation of the buyers wealth (Pronk still life) or aristocratic country life (Dead Game still life).

I interpret the aesthetic as a grouping of objects (almost a compositional exercise) in a beautiful manner – more decoration than art – involving colour, line, shape, lighting and textures. The subject could be flowers, fruit, skulls, vegetables or live or dead animals.

It’s also helped me towards a definition of ‘still life’ – a ‘compositional’ painting where a foreground grouping of objects is aesthetically arranged surrounded by a background that is diminished in significance.

It could even be people (if they were painted as ‘objects’) as easily as fruit and vegetables.

I would argue that an organic arrangement of objects (where the artist hasn’t rearranged them to look beautiful) like a carpenters bench becomes something else – it can be read… and becomes almost a ‘portrait’ of the invisible/absent person rather than a still life.

Where the interaction (social dynamics) becomes foremost it’s becomes a ‘social’ or genre painting, a single person (a portrait), a whole landscape… a landscape.

So these still life paintings are primarily aesthetic (does this hark back to principles of ideal beauty and harmony of the ancient Greeks and Romans?) with subject matter, moralising and informative aspects added to the taste of the buyer – what they are absolutely not is the individual view of the artist.

That I suspect will appear in the Impressionist still life where the way of seeing will dominate – but will it still have an aesthetic arrangement? Will it be a hybrid of the two? What about the Cubists… did they use it as a way to explore new ways of seeing? If so were they commercially successful?

And then how is still life interpreted by young contemporary artists?

The article below was used as a starting point to categorise the still life paintings so I had a framework to start from. I added my thoughts and observations after looking at the paintings themselves.

(a) – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800 (an essay)