Dutch Golden Age still life painting  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Dutch tradition of still life painting was largely begun by Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573–1621), a Flemish-born flower painter who had settled in the north by the beginning of the period, and founded a dynasty. His brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast (d. 1657) pioneered still lifes of shells, as well as painting flowers. These early works were relatively brightly lit, with the bouquets of flowers arranged in a relatively simple way. From the mid-century arrangements that can fairly be called Baroque, usually against a dark background, became more popular, exemplified by the works of Willem van Aelst (1627–1683).

Still lifes were a great opportunity to display skill in painting textures and surfaces in great detail and with realistic light effects. food of all kinds laid out on a table, silver cutlery, intricate patterns and subtle folds in table cloths and flowers all challenged painters.

Several types of subject were recognised: banketje were "banquet pieces", ontbijtjes simpler "breakfast pieces". Virtually all still lifes had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life – this is known as the vanitas theme – implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste). Flowers wilt and food decays, and silver is of no use to the soul. Nevertheless, the force of this message seems less powerful in the more elaborate pieces of the second half of the century.

Initially the objects shown were nearly always mundane, but from the mid-century the pronkstilleven ("ostentatious still-life"), showing expensive and exotic objects, became more popular. The early realist, tonal and classical phases of landscape painting had counterparts in still life painting. Willem Claeszoon Heda (1595–c. 1680) and Willem Kalf (1619–1693) led the change to the pronkstilleven, while Pieter Claesz (d. 1660) preferred to paint simpler "ontbijt" ("breakfast pieces"), or explicit vanitas pieces. In all these painters, colours are often very muted, with browns dominating, especially in the middle of the century. This is less true of the works of Jan Davidszoon de Heem (1606–1684), an important figure who spent much of his career based over the border in Antwerp. Here his displays began to sprawl sideways to form wide oblong pictures, unusual in the north, although Heda sometimes painted taller vertical compositions. Still life painters were especially prone to form dynasties, it seems: there were many de Heems and Bosschaerts, Heda's son continued in his father's style, and Claesz was the father of Nicholaes Berchem.

Flower paintings formed a sub-group with its own specialists, and were occasionally the speciality of the few women artists, such as Maria van Oosterwyck and Rachel Ruysch; the Dutch also led the world in botanical and other scientific drawings, prints and book illustrations. Despite the intense realism of individual flowers, paintings were composed from individual studies or even book illustrations, and blooms from very different seasons were routinely included in the same composition, and the same flowers reappear in different works, just as pieces of tableware do. There was also a fundamental unreality in that bouquets of flowers in vases were not in fact at all common in houses at the time – even the very rich displayed flowers one by one in delftware tulip-holders.

Painters from Leiden, The Hague, and Amsterdam particularly excelled in the genre. Dead game, and birds painted live but studied from the dead, were another sub-genre, as were dead fish, a staple of the Dutch diet – Abraham van Beijeren did many of these. The Dutch were less given to the Flemish style of combining large still life elements with other types of painting – they would have been considered prideful in portraits – and the Flemish habit of specialist painters collaborating on the different elements in the same work. But this sometimes did happen – Philips Wouwerman was occasionally used to add men and horses to turn a landscape into a hunting or skirmish scene, Berchem or Adriaen van de Velde to add people or farm animals.

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