Still Life as Document and Symbol
STILL LIFE WITH A TURKEY PIE
Pieter Claesz (ca. 1597-1661)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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).
Georg Flegel (attrib.), 17th Cent. beginning - Private collection
Jan Davidsz de Heem, ca. 1640 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
W-C. Heda, 1635 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Lubin Baugin, ca. 1631 - Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1760 - Musée du Louvre / 16
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13. 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).
Juan Gris, 1911 - Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Juan Gris, 1923 - Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, United States
Le Corbusier, 1922 - Le Corbusier Foundation, Paris
Emile Othon Friesz, 1929 - Pompidou Centre, Paris
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In the 19th century, still life paintings were considered essentially documentary. In the 20th century, 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.
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