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Pieter Claesz (c. 1597-1661)

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Pays-Bas




As though to prove the importance of wine and the vine in art, many artists have given these elements pride of place in still life compositions, whether symbolic or decorative. This dates back to Antiquity, as shown by the vine and grape motifs in mosaics and frescoes unearthed in the Vesuvius region of Italy. Still life began to emerge as a definable genre at the end of the sixteenth century. It would explode in popularity during the seventeenth century. “Still life was to occupy the majority of the artistic space and the profusion of added elements adopted different aspects, evoking the opulence of well-stocked tables overflowing with food, crockery, people and animals… from a point of view which was both documentary and symbolic” (Source: Musée du Louvre). 


Certain 17th-century works bear witness to contemporary dietary habits and beliefs: the lemon, ubiquitous in certain Dutch still life paintings, was believed to counteract poisons hidden in gold and silver tableware. Wine was thought to aid the digestion of melons, peaches and other fruit; while oysters were said to “awaken the appetite, the desire to eat and to share one’s bed, and [to be] as beneficial to those of a joyful character as those of more delicate disposition...” (Johan van Beverwyck, 1651). On a less prosaic level, the lemon symbolises the bitterness of existence and, when peeled, evokes the passage of time (the oysters, which can’t be conserved, convey much the same message).


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3. Typical of the still life in fashion in the Netherlands and the Rhineland at that time. Only the piece of pie, the knife and the strawberry placed on the table give an inkling of a sense of life.


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3. Diderot published reviews of the Salons from 1759 to 1781. He described Chardin as an illusionist who could make people believe that “a porcelain vase is made of porcelain”. He recognised “Nature herself” in Chardin’s paintings, and objects “real enough to fool one’s eyes” (Claude Frontisi, Histoire visuelle de l’art, Larousse, 2005). 


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3. 'Don’t bother trying to look for something new: you won’t find novelty in the subject matter, but in the way you express it', Pissaro.


> Découvrez les oeuvres dans leur entier en cliquant sur les vignettes

In the 19th c., still life paintings were considered essentially documentary. In the 20th c. , artworks of this type – whether futurist, cubist, surrealist or hyper-realist – were seen more an extension of the artist’s personality, an expression of style and individual talent.

6. A traditional domestic subject matter again, with a bottle and fishes on a plate, laid on a table with a drawer: ordinary objects, but fragmented to form a grid-like structure.

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18. Isabel Baquedano shows us that a table can be “set” without a bottle of wine… in a way!


LE PORTRAIT  René Magritte, 1935  Museum of Modern Art, New York City


René Magritte, 1935

Museum of Modern Art, New York City



“… Visitors say the usual snide nonsense: ‘it’s less profound than usual!’, ‘it’s the Belgian spirit!’ ...” This was how René Magritte described to a colleague the public reaction to his latest works. As in The Magician, the surrealist Magritte transforms a familiar, banal scene into a strange and intriguing painting. He “shows us how [as in all his works] painting can stand between visible reality and imaginary depiction.” (Source: Magritte, Marcel Paquet, Taschen, Cologne). Like any painter, he has the magic ability to copy reality while permitting himself to betray it. There are elements in Magritte which, when placed in opposition, awaken the spirit and allow questions to be asked.


Here the artist juxtaposes the slice of ham on the plate and the eye in the middle of it, gazing out at us: is it defiant, or inviting the viewer to take a seat at the table? Thus does mystery enter the humdrum. The work’s title adds to the confusion. The eye undermines the still life, evoking a portrait: of the pig, perhaps, or maybe of a guest ready to join the scene. The result is direct, disconcerting and troubling. It pushes us beyond the visible, towards “that which is hidden by that which we see.” Magritte goes beyond appearances and lends an element of mystery to the real world: “I ensure that, as far as possible, I only work on paintings which create mystery with the precision and enchantment necessary to the life of ideas.”


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