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Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!  Last week’s post about Kelly green did not seem like enough to celebrate that vivid and timely hue, so here is a little still life painting I made long ago back when I was painting small collections of household objects.  The symbolic import of the painting is unclear, but, thanks to its color palette, it certainly has a Saint Patrick’s Day feel. Protestant orange is condensed into a small glowing sphere—an orange star? A gumball? An eye?  Two electric fuses of brass and muted green sit nearby.  The majority of the composition is dedicated to a silk handkerchief filled with horrors and delights.  Upon the glowing green field, a golden ring glistens evocatively next to a small bottle of some unknown elixir or extract.  But beware: beside these ambiguous treasures a tiny orange scorpion lurks–waiting for the unwary hand. To me the composition has always seemed like what a person would find inside a leprechaun’s pockets if one were foolish enough to look there. Or maybe these are purchases from a derelict gumball machine which someone kept pumping quarters into in fading hopes of getting something better…

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life with Tulips and Roses (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,, oil on copper)

Besotted with the beauty of spring, I am dedicating this week of Ferrebeekeeper to flowers and floral-themed posts (in retrospect I should have saved last week’s aquilegia post for this week—but consider that a teaser). To start this week’s flower celebration, we are returning to the Dutch Golden Age of painting to look at the life and works of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). Bosschaert was one of the artists whose work initiated the Dutch mania for still life paintings and for fancy flowers (he lived through the tulip mania and may have helped precipitate that economic bubble). He also founded a family dynasty of artists which endured throughout the 17th century—which is why he is styled “Bosschaert the Elder” (though I am just going to call him Bosschaert).

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Tulips, Roses, a Pink and White Carnation, Forgets-Me-Nots, Lilly of the Valley and other Flowers in a Vase (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was born in Antwerp, but to avoid religious persecution, he moved to Middleburg where he spent most of his life painting with his equally famous and important brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast. Bosschaert favored symmetrical bouquets of April-May flowers (mainly roses and extragent tulips) which he painted on copper—a surface which allows artists to paint in exacting detail. Unlike van der Ast, Bosschaert did not obsess over multitudinous insects, mollusks, and other crawly animals with symbolic meanings (although are usually a few dragonflies, cone snail shells, or moths at the edges of his paintings). Instead he concentrated on the pure formal beauty of flowers. Bosschaert concentrated on the lambent translucent beauty of an unfurling rose or the perfectly harmonized stripes of newly hybridized tulips. There are irises, poppies, and ranunculuses in supporting roles with their own elegance, but tulips and roses nearly always take a starring role.

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Flower Still Life (Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ca. 1619, oil on copper)

Bosschaert was extremely popular and his works commanded top dollar…er guilder, but there are fewer than collectors and museums would like since he also worked as an art dealer. The paintings we have from him, however are magnificent. Even after all of the intervening centuries of decorative art, Bosschaert’s work has an unrivaled power to call attention to the pure mesmerizing beauty of flowers in carefully organized bouquets.

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch,

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch, ca. first half of 18th century)

Every once in a while, things go right for artists: Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) lived a long prosperous life and found international success as a still life painter in an era when there were few women in the arts.  Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a famous professor of anatomy and botany who was renowned for his highly informative yet artistic anatomy displays (somewhat in the manner of famous contemporary body displays by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens).  Professor Ruysch built strange and delicate landscapes out of preserved human organs and dissected bodies—particularly those of infants. He was renowned for his skill with various preservative regents and his secret liquor balsamicum was one of the wonders of the day—as were the novel human specimens he preserved within this embalming fluid. Rachel was expected to help by creating lace for the pieces and then arranging the bodies, limbs, appendages, and organs in an artistic fashion along with seashells and flowers (you’ll have to look that stuff up on your own, because it is the stuff of nightmares).

Because she worked closely with her father, interacted with famous artists of Holland’s golden age, and drew and organized the objects in her family’s famous curiosity cabinet, Rachel was well positioned to launch her own art career.  She usually painted in the “dark background” still life style of de Heem and Willem Kalf, however many of her works demonstrated her background in the natural sciences.  For example in “Flowers on a Tree Trunk” she boldly moves her composition from the parlor to the forest.  A highly artificial flower bouquet of cabbage-roses, lilies, and irises dominates the composition—however, since this flower arrangement is located on the ground floor of a forest, the meaning is extremely different from more conventional vase paintings.  Surrounded by wild creatures the bouquet invites the viewer to contrast the artificial beauty of flower arranging (or indeed of cultivated flowers themselves) with the chaotic beauty of a wild ecosystem of snakes, lizards, snails and butterflies.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Henk Helmantel is a contemporary Dutch still life painter who paints classical subjects in a traditional style realistic taken from the Dutch golden age.  He mostly paints fruit, bottles, and boxes (although occasionally he paints an animal or some snail shells).  Although Helmantel’s work is classically inspired, it does not seem to have the same allegorical underpinning that 17th century Dutch art had.  Instead the drama in the work is conveyed by the arrangement of the objects and their relationship to the space around them.  In this respect—in color, form, and context—the works are indeed modern.  The spare clean lines and delicate loveliness of plums, berries, and vessels is somehow reminiscent of abstract artists and contemporary Dutch architecture (even if the paintings are simultaneously so dissimilar from these schools).

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

 

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise)

Paolo Porpora (1617–1673) was a Neapolitan painter during the Late Baroque.  He was apparently influenced by Dutch still life paintings and his works share the precision, control, and aesthetic elements of paintings by Rachel Ruysch or Balthasar van der Ast. Yet Porpora did not paint still life paintings.  His works are miniature nature tableaus which have the dark drama of Baroque art written small in the lives of small animals.  In Still Life with a Snake, Frogs and a Tortoise, the various reptiles and amphibians square off in a little landscape of fungi and flowers.  The small world has the menace and violence of a Webster play as the cold blooded creatures stare beadily at each other attempting to work out who will eat whom.

Please Don't Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Please Don’t Go (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Maria Tomasula is a contemporary artist who paints strange collections of beautiful items coalescing into miniature glowing geometric systems (usually against an empty black outer space backdrop).  Dew, flowers, and fruit are the most frequent items in these compositions, but sculptures, amphibians, skulls, mollusks, weapons, and disembodied organs (among other things) also find their way into these little microcosms.

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Ground of Being (Maria Tomasula, 2010, oil on panel)

Tomasula paints the shining or dewy objects which make up her still life works with finicky photorealism, yet the abstract structure of the works takes these images towards mathematical abstraction. Her delightful little paintings give us the aesthetics of the natural world as viewed through a dark melting kaleidoscope.

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Intercession (Maria Tomasula, 2007, oil on panel)

Tomasula has a particular flair for teasing humankind’s magpie-like fascination with shininess and bright colors.  From across the gallery, her works beguile the viewer closer and closer.  Only when one is next to them does one notice the carnivorous pitcher plants and bird skulls among the velvet, petals, and jewels.   However the dark imagery does not outshine the sensuous appeal of these fastidious spirals, loops, and curtains.  Tomasula invites us to reach into the dark fractal pattern of beauty to grab the waxy flowers, the moist fruits, the polished gems…if we dare.

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)oil on panel

Second Nature (Maria Tomasula, 2011, oil on panel)
oil on panel

 

 

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

Five Shells Mounted on a Slab of Stone (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte.  I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so.  The date of his birth and his death are both unknown.  Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland.   His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.

Seashells (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement.  Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte, 1697 oil on paper on wood panel)

Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play.  The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte,1698, oil on paper on wood panel)

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

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