CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Abundance and Ephemerality. Still Lifes from Finnish and Baltic Collections

Exhibition: 21 January - 14 May 2017

The compositions by the 17th– and 18th-century Netherlandish, Italian and French masters of flower bouquets, fruit baskets and elegantly covered breakfast tables, as well as their compositions of hunting trophies, have charmed viewers for centuries with the mastery of their painting techniques and allegorical subtexts. Along with earlier paintings, this exhibition also includes works by contemporary artists from Finland and the Baltic countries that relate technically and thematically to the still life genre.

Although the Dutch term stilleven (“immobile object” or “still life”) is encountered for the first time in Dutch inventory records from the mid-17th century, the roots of still life art stretch back to the 14th century, when compositions creating optical illusions (trompe l´oeil) were a beloved element of interior design. The increasing popularity of still lifes in the 15th century was associated with changes related to the comprehension of people’s senses and the rise of empiricism during the Renaissance, which placed great value on observation and direct experiences. The popular name for the genre, nature morte (“dead nature”), became fixed during the 18th century in France and, along with the corporeal and material components, emphasised the symbolic, religious and moralistic level of still lifes: a reference to the ephemerality of life.

The 17th and early 18th centuries can be considered to be the golden age of the still life genre, especially in the Netherlands. Although it was at the lowest position in the French Academy’s hierarchy of painting genres, still lifes provided the best opportunities for the expression of great artistic skill and aesthetic refinements within the framework of realistic interpretation. Along with the masterfully painted depictions of consumer and luxury goods produced by   human hands, the still lifes of this period have always contained symbolic meanings and commentaries on contemporary social reality and criticisms of consumption habits that even seem topical today.

By juxtaposing still lifes from 17th– and 18th-century Europe with contemporary art, the exhibition expands the reception of still lifes and creates an opportunity to contrast and compare the development of the themes and keywords (abundance, ephemerality and consumption) in European art culture and mentality through five centuries. The work of the following historical still life masters is represented: Willem Claesz. Heda, Pieter Claesz, and Hans van Essen. Works by the following Estonian contemporary artists are included in the exhibition: Lauri Sillak, Aarne Maasik, Tõnis Saadoja and Toomas Kalve.

Collections: Sinebrychoff Art Museum (Finnish National Gallery), M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art, Ostrobothnian Museum, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation, Tartu Art Museum, Vaal Gallery, Maksla XO Gallery, AV-arkki, private collections, artists and the Art Museum of Estonia


The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated book. The international circle of authors includes Fred Meijer (RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History), Matthias Depoorter (independent art historian), Viktoria Markova (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), Minna Tuominen (Sinebrychoff Art Museum at the Finnish National Gallery) and Jaan Elken (Estonian Artists Association). The publication provides a survey of the schools and subdivisions of the still life genre in the Netherlandish and Italian art tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as manifestations and reflections of the genre in contemporary art. The catalogue’s articles are based on examples from the exhibition, and help to reveal the symbolism, values related to the painting techniques and social messages specific to historical and contemporary still lifes.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594-1680), Still-life with a Dessert , 1637
Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Helsinki