CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Animal, vegetable, mineral: still-life paintings by European masters

Exhibition: 19 November 2002 - 4 January 2004


Shlomit Sternberg*.

During the 17th century there was, in the Low Countries, a growing demand for the production and marketing of still-life painting.
Still-life or stilleven (as it was first coined in Dutch ca. 1650), is a depiction of flowers, fruit, foods, everyday implements, and at times animals, game and various insects assembled together upon a table, a slab of marble, or in a corner of a room.

This exhibition features still-life paintings, drawings and photographs, most of them from the collection of the Israel Museum: from early 17th-century paintings to photographs created about a year ago, the exhibition incorporate works from Dutch and Flemish as well as Italian and Spanish masters, a modern Czech sculptor and a contemporary Israeli photographer, touching upon the many varieties of this fascinating genre.

Many categories fall under the concept of still life, among them kitchen scenes such as the small painting by Kalf, Vanitas paintings such as the skull-dominated work by Gijsbrechts, musical instruments, books and news racks bordering on the illusionist notion of trompe l?oeil in the paintings by Bettera and Collier.

For some reason, in the 17th century this particular genre of painting was considered to be of less importance than historical or religious scenes. While historians of that period may not have appreciated the visual results, patrons such as Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan and King Charles I in London were enthusiastic collectors of such paintings.

For a long time there was a persistent tendency by art historians to regard still-life paintings as a visual expression of a moralistic lesson whose fullest intention was to teach and preach about life on earth and the after-life as well as about gluttony and abstinence. Scholars set doggedly at the task of deciphering each painted object, reading into the paintings a cryptic visual code of Dutch values, not pausing to reflect on whether an art connoisseur would indeed acquire a painting whose main purpose was to point out to him he that is full of vices. Granted, some moralistic symbols can be found in that particular field of still life also known as Vanitas, in which skulls, burned-out candles, and other items play the part of Memento Mori, reminders of death.

The Post-modern discipline in art tends to shy away from extra symbolism and points out instead to the sheer pleasure one should take in glancing upon these splendid displays of fruit, vegetables, flowers and other nature-made or man-made beauties. A good still-life painting is a trigger to the senses, ours and in a manner of hinting, those of the figures missing from the depicted scene: the family who dined at the food-laden table, the person who arranged the assorted flowers, the scholar who left his books and his musical instruments and whose finger-prints were left in the dust, signs of his long-gone presence. The constant feeling, that someone has recently left the scene after sampling the food, arranging the flowers or stacking the table with items of interest, stands in contrast with the French term nature morte which is frequently used (even by non-French speakers) to describe still-life paintings.