In the 17th century tens of thousands of still lifes were produced – works on canvas, copper and panel – all lovingly painted and eagerly purchased. This summer the celebrated Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will host a remarkable exhibition featuring the finest examples of Dutch still lifes from 1550 to 1720. Some 70 major paintings will travel to Amsterdam from such museums as Te Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musee du Louvre in Paris, the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen and the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. Together with loans from private collections (e.
g. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the Frits Lugt Collection in Paris and the Michal Hornstein Collection in Montreal) they will provide a splendid overview of this popular genre for the first time. Never before has there been an exhibition which featured all the different types of still life: the colourful flowers, the juicy fruits, the sumptous banquets, the evocative ‘breakfast pieces’ and breathtaking examples of the illusionistic trompe l’oeil. This unparalleled exhibition presents spectacular works from such artists as Brueghel, Coorte, Rembrandt, Saverij, and Van Huysum. The exhibition is organized by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. The works of Dutch still-life artists continue to be internationally admired as unrivalled achievements in this genre because of the breath-taking rendering of materials, the subtlety of the compositions and the feats of perspective. Equally admired is the simplicity, though it is often only apparent and is rooted in subtlety. It is remarkable that these magnificent works were generally painted by artists who are not widely known.
Who has heard these days of Floris van Dijck? Most people will associate the name Brueghel with Pieter, the ‘Peasant Brueghel’, rather than with his son Jan, whose flower paintings (cat. 3) make him one of the great masters of the still life. Who has heard of Pieter van Anraadt, the maker of the finest painted clay pipes from Gouda (cat. 46), or of Daniel Seghers, world famous in the 17th century for his matchless flower pieces? The Rijksmuseum highlights these great but little known artists in this special exhibition. The still life in the NetherlandsThe standard of Dutch still lifes of the 17th century is unparalleled. This special quality, the spell cast by the best still lifes, was achieved not just by a few but by quite a considerable number of artists. The exhibition puts the spotlight on some fifty artists but that number could easily have been greater.
It is remarkable that the heyday of the genre in the Netherlands lasted so long – over a century. Even more surprisingly, the extraordinary high standard of work declined sharply thereafter. Superb still lifes were painted elsewhere since then, but the magic of the Dutch works of 1550 to 1720 was never equalled. The earliest Dutch still lifes date from the second half of the 16th century. Pioneers such as Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaar painted market and kitchen pieces filled with meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Saverij and Brueghel won over the royal houses of Europe with their delicate bouquets composed of flowers from around the world. In about 1600 the still life in the Northern and Southern Netherlands became a separate genre and artists began to specialise. For example, Floris van Dijck excelled at cheeses, Heda at silver and Jan van Huysum at bouquets.
Coorte concentrated on the refined simplicity of shells, berries and asparagus. De Heem was an absolute master of complex and extremely lavish still lifes. Besides the painters who concentrated entirely on the genre, there were others who produced occasionally still lifes. Examples of such works in the exhibition include the mysterious painting by Torrentius (cat. 11) and the ‘Dead Peafowl’ by Rembrandt (cat. 40). The mastery of the rendering of materials resulted in a notable and amusing type of still life, the trompe l’oeil.
The depiction, for example, of the letter board by Samuel van Hoogstraten (cat. 54) is so lifelike that it almost invites the viewer to take hold of a letter. Similarly, the documents from the room of the City Treasury General in the Amsterdam town hall in the painting by Cornelis Brize (cat.
55) look almost tangible.