This research point asks you to look at the work of traditional sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch still life painters, then think about how it was interpreted by nineteenth-century and contemporary artists.
Dutch still life
Looking into the 16th and 17th-century Dutch painters I came across the Dutch golden age of painting. This spanned the 17th century and was a prosperous time for the nation. The new dutch republic was formed moving away from old laws, traditions and religious movements. Because of the reformation of the church, religious and historical paintings fell out of fashion. Even thought these types of paintings were generally a preferred subject matter for the artists, there wasn’t a strong market for them. To accommodate this, the artists had to re-evaluate their working practices, focusing more on still life, landscapes, and portrait paintings simply because they sold better and kept up with the new trends and feelings of the times.
Despite this the painting categories in order of prominence where:
- Historical painting
- Portrait painting
- Genre painting
- Still life
Still life painting of this period was predominantly the study of inanimate objects laid out on a table using one point perspective to capture the scene. It included things like fruit, flowers, bowls and cutlery. There can also be animals like butterflies, mice and birds included among these and symbolic aspects like bubbles, rotting fruit or a recently extinguished candle. Still life paintings can be traced back to early civilisations such as Egyptian, Greek, and Roman but really came into their own through the Dutch painters of this time.
The Dutch painters had recognisable subject categories such as breakfast and banquet scenes, writing desks and even outdoor study of arranged objects. There was usually a prominent and heavy moralistic message interwoven in these scenes, steeped in the fleeting transience of life. These moralistic still lifes were named Vanitas. Their subject matters included scenes with wilting flowers, skulls, mouldy food and anything that shows the fragility of form. Symbolism played a big part too with lilies representing purity and innocence, also the purity of the virgin Mary, and roses symbolising love and passion. There was a real focus on detailed realism and the ability to portray the amount of control they had over capturing the scene. This, in turn, gave them the opportunity to experiment with lighting effects, subject matter, and style to produce a realistic result.
Dutch artists of the time include Pieter Claesz, Abraham van Beijeren and Jacob Gillig.
Pieter Claesz, still life with a skull and a writing quill 1628
Abraham van Beijeren, pronkstillevens (still life with silver wear) there is a self-portrait of the artist reflected in the silver of the jug.
Jacob Gillig, salt water fish
Looking at the work of 19th-century artist Paul Cézanne, who doesn’t seem to fit into any one set style of painting, sometimes referred to as a post-impressionist and others a modernist. Despite this, he has had a massive influence on the fauvist and cubist movements. In regards to his still life paintings, you can see his approach was more focused on simplification. He looked more closely at the form of the objects to create depth in his work. To create the illusion of form in his paintings, tone and perspective are used. He chooses to paint directly onto the canvas over the use of underdrawing. This allowed him to focus on the brush strokes and palette knife application of his paint. Unlike the early dutch painters who used conventional perspective, which uses a single viewpoint, he believed that we don’t view the world in such a way, and liked to combine several viewpoints in one picture. By looking at his work you can see his interest in the shapes of the shadows and the forms as a whole. He also favoured colour over well laid out silhouettes, he liked these colours to harmonised with each other in his works and in doing this he chooses to allow the colour to dictate the form, without the use of light or shadow but, through the graduation of the colours themselves. After looking through his paintings and reading about his views his work stands out to me more now. He has definitely highlighted some issues that I have come across myself which made me question my approach to drawing objects. An example of this is when I’ve drawn an object on a table with the edge of the table still visible in the background. I have struggled with the fact that by passing behind an object it appears to not line up and then I feel the need to move the line to make the drawing line up and fit together as I perceived to be more accurate and in a way tidy it up. Cezanne chose not to question what he saw, stay true to it or even embrace it or capture it from these different viewpoints which I find inspirational. Along with his use of colour and freedom to express himself in this way, you can see why artists like Pablo Picasso and Maurice Denis were so inspired by him. To him, a realistic example of the objects he chose to paint was not the point. To me, this is what stood him apart from his predecessors and is vastly different from the early dutch works.
Paul Cezanne came from a rich family and therefore did not necessarily need to make money from his work, creating paintings for his own enjoyment, this allowed him to be freer with the way he chose to work, having no pressure on him to conform to the wants and needs of the people, who would have bought art at the time, and in doing this gave himself limitless opportunity to express himself freely. I have chosen two paintings of his that I feel reflect my study into his work.
The first is, Still Life With Apples 1894
When I first looked at this painting I felt I had to tilt my head to the left as it seems to draw me in from the bottom right-hand side, but the green vase looks as though you are viewing it from the front and above at the same time. The green vase also seems to be so close to the left side edge of the table, that it is just about to fall off the fabric, adding to the drama, until you notice that the table edge is still there only lower down in the painting, not lining up from where it disappeared behind the vase on the other side. The colours work well together and are a good example of colour flows throughout the painting. Every time I look at the painting I notice something new.
The second is, Still Life With Plaster Cast 1894
I made this painting my second choice because it is so obscure. At first glance, it just seemed to be a straightforward painting of a cherub statue on a table with some fruit and other objects laid around. After studying it for a longer time, it became more complex than it first appeared. The first thing I noticed was the size of the fruit painted in the top right corner, it seems to be bigger than the fruit you would perceive to be closer to you in the picture. The position of the fruit is in on the floor makes it seem as though it should be rolling down the painting. From the onion and the fabric at the bottom left, the floor seems to curve up and over the room being higher and lower than the table at the same time. This painting is a good example of his multi-viewpoint technique. Once you get your bearings it’s still really hard to tell how he put the composition together. The table seems to be on the floor, the floor seems to be on another floor halfway up the wall and the statue seems to be facing several directions at once. There’s so much movement in this picture that it contradicts the term still life. It is a very complex work.
Art historians credited Paul Cezanne for inspiring the cubism movement, due to the way in which he broke apart his images and rearranged them with his multi-view point technique. Cubism was a revolutionary form of abstract art that refers to the way in which the artists chose to structure their painting or sculpture. With their chosen theme, they would analyse it, take the subject matter apart and rearrange the natural forms to their geometrical equivalents, translating natural forms into what seemed to be formal structure. Still life, the human face, and figure were the main subject matters. There were two phases of cubism, the first being analytic which was an approach that attempted to recreate what the mind perceives over what the eye sees. The second stage was synthetic which involves brighter colours and simpler forms.
Looking at Picasso’s still life paintings it is clear that an artists approach to their paintings were vastly different from the dutch masters. Recent war’s still had their effect on people’s outlooks but religion was far less prevalent and controlling in its influence on artists working practices. New technologies such as photography, cars, and aeroplanes brought the world into a new age and the impact of this must have been felt by all. People could express themselves in new ways. The variety of styles and tastes had evolved and to stand out you had to be different. Picasso along with his associate Georges Braque embraced this freedom and together developed cubism as a fresh new take over structured traditional approaches. There innovative techniques had never been seen before. Techniques such as collage using industrially produced objects. Picasso adopted many styles of painting over his lifetime. He experimented with many different mediums, including household paints in many of his paintings, he also liked to paint at night using artificial light.
Still life with steers skull 1942
This painting of a bulls head sat on a table in front of a window is quite dark and eerie, it has a reflective quality to it. The steer skull to me particularly highlights the use of structural form in cubism, and you do get the feeling of looking at it from multiple viewpoints. It reminds me in a way of the still life with plaster cast in that the steers skull is twisting around, with the bottom of the skull lining up with the edge of the table as though it is not sitting on it at all. The Skulls eyes are painted in a way that it could be looking out of the canvas in front or out of the window behind. The colours that Picasso chose really stand out effectively against the black background.
Still life sculpture 1914
I also really enjoyed reading about the sculpture Picasso made named Still Life 1914. First looking at it, it seems to be a jumble of bits and bobs glued and nailed together and that’s exactly what it is, But the more you look at it the more the elements start to emerge until you can finally see it as a whole. I think it’s really clever and it does capture a scene of a working man’s lunch.
Contemporary artists today have vast freedom in the way they choose to work. You can stay true to the ways of the old masters or be free and abstract with the way you work. Religion and Politics no longer have a stranglehold on what can be seen and produced, at least in the western world anyway.
I have chosen to look at the work of English photographer, sculpture, and filmmaker Mat Collishaw and his series of work entitled last meals on death row. In this series, the artist has recreated a selection of inmates last meals in a style reminiscent of the dutch masters. Each work is named after the respective inmate who received the meal. They are digitally transferred prints on goatskin parchment. “I remade the meals in a manner usually used for reflecting on the accumulation of worldly goods, vanity, and mortality,” Mat says. It’s a good example of old methods being used in creative new ways with new technology mixed with the traditional material.
The subject matter is macabre and thought to provoke. They are the last chance of indulgence if wanted, of those that will not be sustained for much longer, the last supper of murderers and rapists. Each meal is a personal choice of the sentenced, be it oysters, salad or junk food, all represented by the artist with the same amount of respect regardless of their tastes. It makes you wonder if this final indulgence has any impact on them at all, with their impending fate so close.
This series is a prime example of the traditional style still being embraced, but with modern technology to capture the final scene. Although it is the artist’s choice of subject matter the spread is the preferred food of the condemned. Whatever meal they have chosen the artist has taken the same amount of care to portray. Some of the meals are placed on a silver platter but not all of them, again reminiscent of traditional works. One photo I particularly like is that of Jonathan Nobles, executed on the 7th of October 1998. In 1986, high on drugs Jonathan, at the time 25 years old, stabbed two young women to death and seriously injured a man. His last meal was a Communion wafer and a glass of wine. The lighting from the lower left-hand side elongates the shadow cast from the wine glass and highlights the wafer adding drama. I think that the simplicity of the shot and the heavy religious connotations, along with the dark setting and the soft low lighting and the starkness of the black room and dark wooden table leave a lot to the imagination. It does make me wonder if he found his peace while striving for forgiveness, will this final act have the power to over shine his sins and carry him through to his spiritual salvation.
Then final contemporary Artist I have chosen to look at is the still life work of British artist Julian Merrow-Smith. He has a blog called postcard from Provence, it’s a daily painting diary from where he now lives in Vaucluse, in the south of France. The idea of the daily painting blog is a good example of how technological advantages have opened up more freedom and ways of expression from the early dutch artists. His concept made me reflect on the advantages that artists have in the modern age and the ability to get work viewed immediately after completion, almost anywhere in the world. Looking through his paintings and reading about how he likes to paint seasonal produce made me think about how in Britain especially there is no real need to know about seasonal produce anymore with the shops stocking pretty much anything you want all year round. Gone are the days when you had to wait until June for your fresh Strawberry’s and with a glut, you could preserve them for winter time. It takes the magic out of seasonal delights, and with this age where you can visit a supermarket 24 hours a day for practically anything the ability and knowledge of seasonal harvests and home preserving methods are not an essential part of the home anymore. I think that is why I like the paintings so much, it’s a reminder that even in the age of superfast broadband and hectic schedules, a rural charm is still out there somewhere. For artists living in a time before convenience stores and reference photos, who had a passion for painting, would have to wait patiently for their fruit or flower of choice to ripen and bloom, making it an extra special time of year. I think that his approach to still life compared to the Dutch artists is more laid back and soft, they seemed to need to fill up their paintings with elaborate layouts and hidden messages and meanings, whereas Julian’s work is more concentrated on a few items that take you to a simplistic way of life. One thing I like about his work is that it has a soft dream-like charm to it that take you to the heart of the countryside.
Bowl of cherries
I choose this painting because it really does represent the rural charm I thought of while looking through his work. The brushwork, highlights, and shadow give the painting a soft palatable quality. With modern paint and painting styles, this brightly coloured yet simplistic depiction of a bowl of cherries is in contrast with the early Dutch art for it brightness and three-dimensional form.