In addition to painting renowned landscape paintings and interior scenes, Dutch painters are also very well-known for their still-life paintings. As Fred S. Kleiner, author of Gardner’s Art through the Ages, puts it, “These still lifes… are beautifully crafted images that are both scientific in their optical accuracy and poetic in their beauty and lyricism.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Pieter Claesz’s (1597-1660) Vanitas Still Life is a vanitas (vanity) painting, a type of painting that is often associated with still lifes from Flander and Netherland during the 16th and 17th centuries. Vanitas paintings often depict fancy and luxurious objects and include symbolism that reminds the viewer of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty and inevitableness of death. In Claesz’s painting, he uses the skull, the timepiece, the tipped glass, and the cracked walnut as reminders of death. They all suggest the passage of time. Claesz also included a self-portrait in the reflection of the glass ball. In it, he seems to be painting this very still life, ironically immortalizing himself in this painting.
Willem Kalf’s (1619-1693) Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar is another still-life painting, depicting various expensive and exquisite luxury items. In it, he highlights Dutch maritime trade through objects such as the Indian floral carpet and the Chinese jar used to store luxury items. Kalf also displays his splendid artistic skills in the delicate designs of the glassware, the jar, and the floral carpet. The inclusion of objects such as the watch, the peach, and the peeled lemon, which indicate the transience of life, suggest that Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar is also a vanitas painting.
Flowers are often used as symbolism of death in vanitas paintings because they are living things that soon die. However, floral painting was itself very popular among Dutch artists. One very famous Dutch flower painter is Rachel Ruysch (1663-1750). Her dad was a professor of botany and anatomy, which is likely what inspired Ruysch. In Flower Still Life, she depicts a floral arrangement of blossoms. There are so many blossoms that the vase can’t contain them and they seem to be spilling out. She also arranged the flowers in a diagonal that offsets the diagonal of the table.
I think Fred S. Kleiner is right because in these still-life paintings, there is so much more than just what meets the eye. The paintings of the objects are so real and the objects seem so tangible that as a viewer, I almost forget that I am just looking at a painting. The vanitas paintings, because of their realness and their symbolism, also give me an eerie reminder and feeling of death.