Evolution Of The Still Life In The North and Spain

Originally posted on my Tumblr: netherlandishflemishspainish.tumblr.com

While still life painting has existed way back into antiquity, Oil still life painting became very popular in the north (Netherlands) during the 16th century due to the rising merchant class. During the protestant reformation iconoclasts destroyed religious painting and sculpture because they believed that the artwork themselves had become idols and objects of worship rather than a representation of a religious figure. This genre (still life) became an outlet for artists because of its inability to be confused as divine and allowed them [the artists] to showcase their skill in arrangement and ability to represent the real in as much fine detail that they were able to produce. Religious matter was incorporated into these pieces in more subtle ways though representation, as religious matter was still needed within painting to avoid being subject to a tax known as “alcabala.1” ( The paintings produced were of extravagant and varied cornucopias, as well as of vibrant and detailed floral arrangements. The goal for the northern still life artist was an almost photo realistic depiction of what existed before them. Paintings like Pieter Aertsen’s Butcher Stall (1551) Shows how realistic and grandiose these paintings could be, regardless of their “low status” in the hierarchy of genres. (Rated below religious/ historical/ mythic, portrait, genre and landscape4- in that order) This painting reciprocated the norm of having religious subject as the major theme of the composition, by pushing it into the background and bringing chaotic, materialistic representation to the forefront2. To be fair, this example combines multiple genres, (religious/genre) but the still life is what draws people in, and it’s the main focus of the composition.

An example of a more “pure” still life is Clara Peeters Still Life with Flowers, Goblet, Dried Fruit, and Pretzels (1611) which is a much more subdued piece in terms of use of color and calmer, less chaotic composition. Unlike Aertesns piece, Peeters has no human representation, and is limited to food, flowers and holding vessels. The attention to detail is incredible; Each wrinkle on the dried fruit is there, reflections of light bounce off the silver teapot, the engraving on the goblet it sublime, the flowers look as if they are fresh cut, and the representation of clear glass with wine in it is virtuosic. What makes this piece more interesting however, is where it this piece currently resides today: The Museo del Prado, Madrid. The Spanish became big fans of Dutch still life painting and added their own twist to the still life they produced; a twist that is actually utilized in Peeters aforementioned painting: Curoscuro. The Italian artist Carvaggio used curoscuro to an extreme known as tenebrism, and this style of painting has come to define Spanish baroque art; it’s an obvious assumption that it would find its way into Spanish still life painting. Its presence in Peeters painting seems to be influence of the Spanish, inspired by an Italian artist within a Netherlandish painting, which found its way to Madrid.

Still life painting has its own sub genres based on the content of the composition. Bouquets, breakfast, vanitas, were used throughout Europe, but Spain championed the Bodegon variety. This type of still life differed from the north because of its subdued nature. Whereas the north had their tables overflowing with various sundries, Spanish artists incorporated very few, modest items that one might find in a pantry. (The term Bodegon derives its name from bodega, which means “pantry.”) At the turn of the 17th century, the artist Juan Sanchez Cotan helped pioneer this subgenre that would thrive in Spain1. While the north was obsessed with chaos (understandable as they were fighting on religious, political, and economic fronts) and subliminal religious messages, the Spanish were more interested in order, and ambiguity. Cotans Still life contains a cucumber melon, head of lettuce, and an apple on a parapet, with a completely black background (continuing the Carvaggio influence.) The piece itself has little to no outright symbolism and because of this the piece can become confusing. Is the artist creating some sort of religious symbolism by hanging the apple and lettuce? Are they hanging because it helps keep them from rotting? Is the cucumber a phallic symbol, and the melon a pubic mound? It’s unclear what the meaning behind this piece, but it does contain a sort of aesthetic idealism. The placement of the items is what makes this piece interesting in terms of composition. The curve of the foods almost resembles the golden ratio or parabolic curve6, a mathematical, musical and geometrical theory; and the inclusion of the parapet is an exploration of geometry perspective and plane. Then, any perception of depth is immediately truncated by the pitch black background that flattens the piece and makes the viewer feel like the foreground is almost falling away in front of them.

The north and Spain had different aesthetic ideals for still life; From Chaotic and extravagant, to balanced and humble. The two contrasting styles are admirable for their own reasons, but neither really trumping the other. The two stiles coexisted, and were traded across Europe, and help further each country’s artistic endeavors. Clara Peeters painting is a great example of these styles could be blended together to make something truly special, and further the art of still life as genre as a whole.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Still_life

2 Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 2004. 343-44. Print.




6Moffitt, John F. The Arts in Spain. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999. 140-42. Print.

7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fra_Juan_S%C3%A1nchez_Cot%C3%A1n_001.jpg