Fish, Lemons & Glass Bowls

Still Life Painting Traditions

Dutch still life painting set the standard for out-of-this-world virtuosity in the 17th century, and I'll never get over the unusual mix of objects artists chose to depict: food of all kinds, polished silverware and gleaming glass, embroidered and heavily worked tablecloths, and tons and tons of flowers.

Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie by Willem Claeszoon Heda, oil on panel, 1631.
Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie by Willem Claeszoon Heda, oil on panel, 1631.

What I sometimes forget was how symbolic all of these objects were to the audience that had the occasion to view them all those years ago. And it's also interesting to note that artists often purposefully chose to depict items that might be a challenge to paint as a way to display their painting skills.
All of this symbolism and desire to show off resulted in a lot of paintings that look over the top and a bit unreal. Take floral painting for example. Painting flowers was a focus of many artists during the golden age of Dutch painting. Symbolically, artists and viewers were interested in the nature of a flower's existence—from freshly cut and blooming to wilting and dying—because of the implied "moral" or lesson behind the work, namely that life is fleeting and death, a certainty.

Still Life with Flowers by Willem van Aelst, oil on canvas, 1665.
Still Life with Flowers by Willem van Aelst, oil on canvas, 1665.

But fresh flowers in a painting were also a sign of supreme luxury. During the 17th century, having a bouquet of flowers was virtually unheard of in even the wealthiest households. In fact, in most Dutch homes flowers weren't displayed in the way we are used to at all. Instead blooms were displayed one by one in small vases or tulip-holders designed specifically to hold relatively few flowers.
By creating this kind of ostentatious floral painting that depicted incredible bouquets most viewers couldn't ever hope to actually see in person or have in their homes, artists were accomplishing two things. One, pointing out the artifice of such displays as a reminder that life is not all about luxury and putting store in such things is a waste. But they were also subverting that very message—by displaying such beautiful bouquets in the first place they were sorely tempting viewers to buy the painting, essentially conveying the idea that you can't have such luxuries in real life, but this painting will give them to you and the flowers in this painting will never die.

For us to pay the tradition of Dutch painting forward and to be part of this engaging and fascinating genre means really understand the motivation for the art and the technical execution that it took to get to those amazing final works. The Artist's Magazine is one of the highest caliber resources that we have to offer on the subject of traditional painting–and more—and it is sure to give all of us the foundation we need to have our own artistic golden ages. Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

4 thoughts on “Fish, Lemons & Glass Bowls

  1. I am amazed at how the oil ‘Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie’ by Willem Claeszoon Heda looks like a photograph. He absolutely captured the depth, reflection in his work.

  2. Yes, these old Renaissance still lifes are beautiful in their own way, and kind of weird and stodgy. I am currently teaching a still life class in watercolor called “Still Life with a Difference”, the idea being to show the more contemporary side of still life. You can see what I mean by checking out my blog at I think there are two types of still life: arranged still life and “found” still life. Personally I prefer the more spontaneous look of the “found” still life, where an interesting little scene is discovered in real life, perhaps rearranged a tiny bit, usually photographed, and then transposed into a painting.

  3. I had read that the tulips with coins on the table metaphorically refered to the failing of the Dutch tulips futures (a bit of an investment scam) called the tulip bubble.I think it was in Schnieder’s book “Still life”.

  4. As someone who has spent a good deal of time studying the Dutch and Flemish watercolor painters, I would like to point out that by the time this Heda painting was created, most of the church sanctioned symbolism was no longer a part of his thinking. He, and his fellow still life painters, were more about recording the growing wealth and effluence of the Dutch and Flemish economy as it appeared on their dining tables.
    They were also responding to the rise in the demand for paintings by the growing wealthy in places like Amsterdam and Antwerp. The church was no longer the greatest consumer of art. There was a secular need and it was being met by the creation of these secular paintings. Case in point: the church was never able to attache a symbolism to the knife. Now we realize that the knife was just a tool to illustrate that the artist understood perspective, something that had been lost for a long time, and that they could draw a believable foreshorten knife. The same is true for the peeled lemon.
    Laurin McCracken AWS NWS