Fish, Lemons & Glass Bowls

7 Feb 2012

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. 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!


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DebbieW wrote
on 8 Feb 2012 6:17 AM

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.

susanmurphy wrote
on 8 Feb 2012 8:26 AM

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.

cfairlie wrote
on 8 Feb 2012 10:30 AM

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".