“There’s more to Still Life than I thought”

After seeing the Dutch still life’s from the 17th century in person at the Rijksmuseum, I was even more impressed by the genre.
They are incredibly beautiful with such detail and the way the different objects and materials are painted is exquisite. I was blown away by how the silver, glass, ceramic and fabric looked so lifelike.

There were several still life paintings in the Gallery of Honour that I really liked. I love the meanings given to the included objects in these type paintings. It adds a whole new dimension to the works and creates multiple layers of interest.

Before I studied this section I wasn’t as aware of the multitudes of meanings within still life’s. I previously regarded them literally for the objects they depicted. The banquets with all of their exotic components such as Chinese porcelain and spices clearly display the trade of the region but I didn’t quite realise the exotic nature of such mundane (nowadays) items as oranges and lemons. Likewise the inclusion of silver and gold is obviously a sign of wealth but I didn’t realise that some of the other inclusions also meant wealth and success such as tulips or textiles. There are so many more subtle connotations as well such as the reflections in these items often containing a cross and the bread roll, often uneaten, both representing Christ.

The inclusion of a skull is an obvious sign of death but I hadn’t previously associated the brevity of life and sins of gluttony with the scenes of decaying fruit and half eaten food. Thus within these paintings contain a multitude of messages that the 17th century Dutch would have understood but we have to learn the language of.

In his essays about still life however, Norman Bryson delves even deeper in to this genre and raises many questions that are certainly not obvious for the uninformed viewer. He says:

“When allegorical messages are present in vanitas pieces (which may be less often than the Allegorists suppose), it is not enough simply to invoke an iconographic “equal sign”: the pomegranate equals heavenly Majesty and so forth. (1)”

He raises an interesting point: that these painting must be examined in the context of the background of the time they were painted. The objects included can have multiple meanings over those discussed above such as wealth and moral consciousness. Inclusions of exotic shells, strange insects and unusual varieties of flower also had the purpose of spreading knowledge of natural history and taxonomy. While they might reflect the wealth of the owner who bought this expensive painting, they also represent the power of the nation who can overcome the natural world to obtain these items (in the case of some botanical specimens, only through complex horticultural methods).

The Netherlands were the first European society to experience such immense wealth and they lacked the nobility, city-states or church that other regions had that would have absorbed some of this affluence. This surplus of wealth in the community clashed with the Calvinist ethos that discouraged material possessions. Despite this, wealth was traditionally demonstrated in domestic spaces.  The message that the vanitas paintings encouraged was to resist the temptations of material pleasure but they are in themselves a contradiction. They, themselves are indulgences solely for decorative purposes.

Knowing a bit more about still life now I can whole heartedly agree in the quote of the previous student that “There’s more to Still life than I thought”. Bryson’s detailed analysis of the genre demonstrates how the field has enormous complexity if one cares to look further.

Bibliography

1. Bryson R, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, 1990, Reaktion Books Ltd, London

This text was added to following the comments received in tutor report Jan 2015

Word Count – 627

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