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Double Dutch - Still Life Paintings

The Secret Language of Dutch Still Life.

Presented by Lynne Gibson

11th October 2022

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This lecture gave us a fascinating introduction into the secret symbolic language and meanings behind Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century - The Dutch Golden Age - when Holland was an extremely prosperous country.   During this time the country’s wealth, previously belonging to The Monarchy and The Church, was now firmly in the hands of ‘ordinary’ people. The middle classes - merchants, bankers and traders had money and consequently beautiful (although not large) town houses in the cities like Amsterdam.

One way they chose to embrace their cultural leanings was through paintings hung on the walls of their homes. However, we learnt that they had no desire for either religious adoration or classical art to be a part of this. Thus, a new genre of still life paintings emerged which reflected favourite themes that were much closer to home: Breakfasts (Ontbijtjes) and Banquets (Banketje) being popular topics - the Dutch loved their food.  Flowerpots (Blompots), Pronkstilleven (paintings illustrating ornate precious items such as Chinese porcelain or Venetian glass) and Vanitas (the moral lessons from everyday life) were also subject matter included in these Dutch paintings.  The evening focussed on demystifying a few examples of still life from this era.

All the paintings were oil on canvas, wood, panels, or copper. They were intended for domestic interiors and often bought from artists’ workshops so easily affordable.   We explored 14 paintings (both male and female artists), so not many slides but goodness so much detail.  Lynne dissected each painting in depth, revealing many apparent hidden explanations and plenty of symbolism. 


As an example, the painting below, which was the forerunner of the Banquet themed paintings:

Still Life with a Turkey Pie 1627, oil on panel 75 x 132, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Pieter Claesz (1597-1661).



This painting warns of the dangers of two things: the pleasures of the flesh – the oysters being aphrodisiacs, and gluttony. There is an abundance of extravagant food and items imported from across the world indicating access to global trade.  The showpiece is the Turkey Pie from The New World.  The salt, pepper and lemons would have been imported. The Nautilus Shell in its gilt mount would be a hugely expensive possession.  A Chinese blue dish is filled with imported fruit.  There is a fine white linen tablecloth covering a Persian carpet on top of the table.  But importantly the painting also illustrates the subtlety and skill of the artist:  the tablecloth is not freshly ironed as creases are apparent, a plate is seen balancing on the edge of the table and the lemons were chosen because they are a bitter fruit. This painting therefore reflected the precarious nature of life. And the moral of the story (vanitas) is perhaps that ‘All good things come to an end’ as we note that the apples in the painting appear to be rotting too.

Sally Turner

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A member of The Arts Society
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