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The Winter Still Life
Still life developed as a separate category in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 16th century, and the English term derives from stilleven: still life, which is a calque while Romance languages (and Russian) tend to use terms meaning dead nature. 15th century Early Netherlandish painting had developed highly illusionistic techniques in both panel painting and illuminated manuscripts, where the borders often featured elaborate displays of flowers, insects and, in a work like the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a great variety of objects. When the illuminated manuscript was displaced by the printed book, the same skills were later deployed in scientific botanical illustration; the Netherlands led Europe in both botany and its depiction in art. Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601) made watercolour and gouache paintings of flowers and other still life subjects for the Emperor Rudolf II, and there were many engraved illustrations for books (often then hand-coloured), such as Hans Collaert's Florilegium, published by Plantin in 1600.
Diego Velázquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618, (National Gallery of Scotland), is one of the earliest examples of bodegón.
Francisco de Zurbarán, Bodegón or Still Life with Pottery Jars, 1636, Oil on canvas; 46 x 84 cm; Museo del Prado, Madrid
Josefa de Ayala (Josefa de Óbidos), Still-life, c.1679, Santarém, Municipal Library
In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life painting depicting pantry items, such as victuals, game, and drink, often arranged on a simple stone slab, and also a painting with one or more figures, but significant still life elements, typically set in a kitchen or tavern. Starting in the Baroque period, such paintings became popular in Spain in the second quarter of the 17th century. The tradition of still life painting appears to have started and was far more popular in the contemporary Low Countries, today Belgium and Netherlands (then Flemish and Dutch artists), than it ever was in southern Europe. Northern still lifes had many sub-genre's; the breakfast piece was augmented by the trompe-l'œil, the flower bouquet , and the vanitas. In Spain there were much fewer patrons for this sort of thing, but a type of breakfast piece did become popular, featuring a few objects of food and tableware laid on a table.
There was also a type of very large kitchen or market scene developed by Pieter van Aelst (1502–1550) and his nephew Joachim Beuckelaer. Amid an abundance of food and kitchenware still life, supervised by burly Flemish kitchen-maids, a small religious scene can often be made out in the distance, or a theme such as the Four Seasons elevates the subject. This sort of large-scale still life continued to develop in Flemish painting after the separation of the North and South, but is rare in Dutch painting, although other works in this tradition anticipate the "merry company" type of genre painting.
Around 1600 flower paintings in oils became something of a craze; Karel van Mander painted some works himself, and records that other Northern Mannerist artists such as Cornelis van Haarlem also did so. No surviving flower-pieces by them are known, but many survive by the leading specialists, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert, who both remained in the Flemish south of the Netherlands.
While artists in the North found limited opportunity to produce the religious iconography which had long been their staple—images of religious subjects were forbidden in the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church—the continuing Northern tradition of detailed realism and hidden symbols appealed to the growing Dutch middle classes, who were replacing Church and State as the principal patrons of art in the Netherlands. Added to this was the Dutch mania for horticulture, particularly the tulip. These two views of flowers—as aesthetic objects and as religious symbols— merged to create a very strong market for this type of still life. Still life, like most Dutch art work, was generally sold in open markets or by dealers, or by artists at their studios, and rarely commissioned; therefore, artists usually chose the subject matter and arrangement. So popular was this type of still life painting, that much of the technique of Dutch flower painting was codified in the 1740 treatise Groot Schilderboeck by Gerard de Lairesse, which gave wide-ranging advice on color, arranging, brushwork, preparation of specimens, harmony, composition, perspective, etc.
The symbolism of flowers had evolved since early Christian days. The most common flowers and their symbolic meanings include: rose (Virgin Mary, transience, Venus, love); lily (Virgin Mary, virginity, female breast, purity of mind or justice); tulip (showiness, nobility); sunflower (faithfulness, divine love, devotion); violet (modesty, reserve, humility); columbine (melancholy); poppy (power, sleep, death). As for insects, the butterfly represents transformation and resurrection while the dragonfly symbolizes transience and the ant hard work and attention to the harvest.
Dutch artists also branched out and revived the ancient Greek still life tradition of trompe-l'œil, particularly the imitation of nature or mimesis, which they termed bedriegertje ("little deception"). In addition to these types of still life, Dutch artists identified and separately developed "kitchen and market" paintings, breakfast and food table still life, vanitas paintings, and allegorical collection paintings.
Especially popular in this period were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, books, statuettes, vases, coins, jewelry, paintings, musical and scientific instruments, military insignia, fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life's impermanence. Additionally, a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Often some of the fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade to emphasize the same point.
Another type of still life, known as "breakfast paintings", represent both a literal presentation of delicacies that the upper class might enjoy and a religious reminder to avoid gluttony. In another Dutch innovation, around 1650 Samuel van Hoogstraten painted one of the first wall-rack pictures, trompe-l'œil still life paintings which feature objects tied, tacked or attached in some other fashion to a wall board, a type of still life very popular in the United States in the 19th century. Another variation was the trompe-l'œil still life depicted objects associated with a given profession, as with the Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrecht’s painting "Painter’s Easel with Fruit Piece", which displays all the tools of a painter’s craft. Also popular in the first half of the 17th century was the painting of a large assortment of specimens in allegorical form, such as the "five senses", "four continents", or "the four seasons", showing a goddess or allegorical figure surrounded by appropriate natural and man-made objects. The popularity of vanitas paintings, and these other forms of still life, soon spread from Holland to Flanders and Germany, and also to Spain and France.
German still life followed closely the Dutch models. German painter Georg Flegel was a pioneer in pure still life without figures and created the compositional innovation of placing detailed objects in cabinets, cupboards, and display cases, and producing simultaneous multiple views. Still life painting in Spain, also called bodegones, was austere. It differed from Dutch still life, which often contained rich banquets surrounded by ornate and luxurious items of fabric or glass. The game in Spanish paintings is often plain dead animals still waiting to be skinned. The fruits and vegetables are uncooked. The backgrounds are bleak or plain wood geometric blocks, often creating a surrealist air. Even while both Dutch and Spanish still life often had an embedded moral purpose, the austerity, which some find akin to the bleakness of some of the Spanish plateaus, appears to reject the sensual pleasures, plenitude, and luxury of Dutch still life paintings. In Catholic Italy and Spain, the pure vanitas painting was rare, and there were far fewer still life specialists. In Southern Europe there is more employment of the soft naturalism of Caravaggio and less emphasis on hyper-realism in comparison with Northern European styles. In France, painters of still lifes (nature morte) were influenced by both the Northern and Southern schools, borrowing from the vanitas paintings of the Netherlands and the spare arrangements of Spain
January 12th, 2012
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