The people of the Netherlands loved still lifes, from commoners, to merchants, to nobles; in fact, the name “still life” comes from the Dutch “still leven.” Everyone wanted a still life in their home, especially in the 17th century, a time of unprecedented prosperity. Wealth came on the ships of the Dutch East India Company, which brought many new foods and spices to their tables.
One Flemish artist found great success painting still lifes: Clara Peeters. She chose foods and items for her paintings that were both familiar and exotic to her Dutch patrons. And she painted with such skill that one could almost touch the food she placed in her compositions.
Her painting “Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels” (circa 1615) presents a feast of local and imported foods and drink that could have found a place on any affluent Dutch dinner table.
Directly behind it is a half-wheel of Gouda. Peeters was known for her skill in painting detail, and she shows that here by painting the cavity when a cheese tester takes out a chunk of cheese and then puts back the small wedge on the top after testing. Atop the Gouda is a smaller piece of sheep’s milk cheese. Topping the cheeses is a plate of spooned butter.
At the lower right, the artist placed a Chinese porcelain dish from the period of Wanli, the 14th emperor of the Ming Dynasty. This dishware was named “Kraak porcelain" after the Portuguese carrack ships that imported it to the Netherlands. The plate holds almonds and raisins from around the Mediterranean, and dried figs, which were readily available in the Netherlands.
In the background on the right is a small loaf of bread, which was considered a luxury because it was made from wheat. The lower classes made do with a heavier rye bread.
In front of the bread is a decorated wine glass with a cover, called “façon de Venise” glass and made by Italian glass blowers who made their living in Antwerp at the time. While commoners drank beer, wine imported from Germany, France, or Spain was a main part of the meal for the wealthy merchant and noble classes. Glassware that reflected light in still lifes allowed artists to demonstrate their technical skill in painting details.
In the center, the artist placed a stoneware Bellarmine container, on the lid of which she presented a reflection of herself. Peeters was one of the first artists in Northern Europe to paint self-portraits in reflective surfaces.
Peeters used the dark background of the still life to highlight the food items. The composition was carefully designed to balance color, form, texture, and luster.
It was believed that she lived in Antwerp and is known to have made 40 signed paintings; she signed her paintings in unusual ways. In this painting, it's on the handle of the silver knife on the table.
Painting ordinary items with such skill gives a sense that everything we have is worth caring for, even the food that we eat. Peeters gave us a gift of abundance that will last beyond the expiration date of those delicious items.