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.
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.
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
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. Still Life Painting Highlights
and Guide to Painting Flowers
are two of the highest caliber resources that we have to offer on the subject,
and they are sure to give all of us the foundation we need to have our own
artistic golden ages. Enjoy!