Still Life with Gilt Cup by Willem Claesz. Heda, 1635. Located in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Still lifes elicit a range of responses from viewers, spanning boredom to delight to thoughtful contemplation. Some see only banalities—insignificant and repetitive portrayals of commonplace items. Others admire the surface beauty, illusionistic technique, and careful design. But however prosaic—or appealing—their usual stock of food and other miscellanea might appear to be, still lifes are a paradoxical, ambiguous, multilayered mix of sensuality and spirituality, with glittering surfaces and hidden depths.
Take this masterful example by Dutch painter Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680), from 1635. With astonishing realism, Heda shows us the haphazard remains of a partially consumed meal of bread, oysters, and wine, isolated against an immaculate, though delicately shaded, backdrop. Of course, in reality nothing has been left to chance: Every object has been deliberately chosen and placed by Heda and described with dispassionate, almost scientific precision.
That contrived spontaneity is the real "art" of the still life and its first paradox. Still lifes strive to make the artificial seem perfectly natural and unplanned. Compare Heda’s calculated untidiness with the typical after-dinner wreckage of an actual meal: The reality surely never looked as elegant or artful as this.
To unify his composition and gently guide the viewer through the cluster of objects he has put together, Heda repeats formal elements like ellipses and colors. He creates a subtle network of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals from the edges and center lines of the various shapes. The eye wanders from object to object, lingering on the exquisite renderings of glass, metal, bread, lemon peel, and fabric—which are all the more impressive given the limited palette Heda employs to create them. The pleasure to be had from scanning the contrasted textures of shiny and dull, clear and opaque, soft and hard, smooth and rough, is undeniable.
Superficially, still lifes are all about pleasure. Before they are anything else, they are direct invitations to savor the beauty, real or painted, of familiar and ordinary things. They are celebrations of the domestic world, of material abundance, and of riches both physical and visual. Food is to be eaten, a home is to be beautified, and a still life is a nicely decorative addition to any room.
This hedonistic appeal is one reason why still lifes found a favorable reception among the increasingly prosperous Dutchmen of the 17th century. Those newly minted consumers no doubt appreciated still lifes as reflections of the comfortable circumstances they now enjoyed, and they filled their well-appointed houses with them. Indeed, the ability to own expensive works of art was then, as it is now, a way to show off the fact that one had "arrived."
But the remarkable popularity of still lifes must be explained by something more than their surface charm, especially since the form had to overcome a number of negative perceptions.
For one thing, still lifes were belittled by art theorists and philosophers. Beginning in the early Renaissance, they wanted visual art to be seen as a great and noble enterprise—not a mere craft, as it had been labeled in the Medieval period. In their view, painting should center on the human figure and address weighty ideas drawn from religion and history. Still lifes by their nature excluded the human figure and seemed incapable of attaining moral or intellectual significance.
Another strike against the still life was Protestant antipathy. That any form of visual art should have found a home in the mostly Calvinistic Netherlands is surprising, given the iconoclastic beliefs of the reformers. Overtly religious imagery—inseparably linked with Catholicism—was condemned as tending to idolatry and sometimes outlawed. But even non-religious art was suspect: The puritanical spirit opposed any concession to aesthetics or gratification of the senses. Nothing should distract the mind from the worship of God.
Nevertheless, worldly subjects like portraits, landscapes, interior scenes, and still lifes were accepted in general by the religious authorities. These specialized genres, previously minor players in a world dominated by sacred art, achieved enormous success by appealing to the public’s tastes, despite the critics’ objections. In Catholic Europe, where sacred art was vigorously supported by the Church as a powerful weapon in her Counter-Reformation arsenal, still lifes and the other new genres were slow to make inroads.
In the final analysis, the still life’s multidimensional personality was what gave it the means to justify itself to its critics. Accused of being decorative and superficial, the still life gained respect from natural scientists for its exacting portrayals of reality (in particular exotic fruits and flowers, which were being discovered regularly and required botanical description); from mathematicians for its precise proportions and compositional harmonies; and from art theorists for its imaginative selection and arrangement of objects.
Still, the charge remained that imitation of reality without moral content is empty showmanship and that these sensuous, beautiful works distracted the believer from the divine. The still-life painters responded that their images glorified God’s creation. Moreover, they pointed to the elaborate symbolic programs they concealed in the objects they painted as evidence of their spiritual value. Indeed, their symbolism was used to impart many of the same moral lessons exhibited in the proscribed paintings of Jesus, Mary, and the saints.
Support for these claims comes from the origins of the still life: first, in depictions of the Last Supper, which required the artist to paint all the trappings of a meal, laid out on cloth-covered tables; and second, in representations of the saints with their attributes, such as the lily as a symbol of Mary. With the human figure removed, these peripheral details became artistic subjects in their own right, and for the most part retained their original symbolic associations (wine, loaves of bread, and fish evoke the Eucharist, even in Protestant paintings), though they accrued new ones on top of the old.
Rooted in Paradox
This moral/symbolic dimension accounts for the most deeply rooted paradox of the still life: It uses attractive images of the physical world both to encourage appreciation of it and the Creator and to warn the viewer about being too caught up in that same physical world. As is suggested by the juxtaposition of earthy foreground items with the illuminated emptiness of the background, it is the perfect marriage of the via positiva and the via negativa.
Accordingly, the celebratory implications of Heda’s still life are mingled with implicit disapproval. Consider what we are shown: delicious, extravagant food that has been and should be enjoyed left uneaten—surely not from delicacy of appetite but overindulgence—and precious vessels that most ordinary folk couldn’t afford. The oysters especially would have been understood by the Dutch as symbols of bacchanalian or sexual abandon. For all its immediate beauty, this is also a picture of ugliness—of waste, of wealth used to no good purpose, of moral corruption. We are led to ask: What sort of person would leave such a scene of misspent time and squandered treasure?
Time is a key if not always obvious actor in virtually all still lifes. The still-life artist paints things that do not move, natural things that are no longer alive, things that will rot and decay. In time, the oysters will spoil, the bread will grow stale, the lemon will shrivel and turn brown. How often was Heda forced to replace the moldy, smelly oysters or the desiccated lemon before he finished painting them? Even the glasses will chip and crack, the metals will tarnish and rust. Yet the painting—which took weeks or months to complete, but pretends to capture a spontaneous moment—will remain, outlasting nature. The contrast between art and nature, time and eternity, was a favorite conceit of Baroque artists.
These vanitas still lifes eloquently call to mind the passage of time, the brevity of life, and the approach of death. They abound with symbols of the impermanence of all temporal goods—riches, fame, power, pleasure, life—and testify to the one lasting thing: the spirit. Food and flowers are usually shown past their prime, waiting to be thrown away; insects may already creep over the decaying material. Half-empty or tipped-over glasses (Heda uses both) are well-nigh ubiquitous symbols of the declining or lifeless body, its spirit "poured out" and departed. So too are empty shells, snuffed-out candles, not to mention explicit signs like skulls and bones. Musical paraphernalia implies that no matter how beautiful music—or life—is while it is being breathed into existence, when the performer stops, it is gone. Watches and hourglasses need no explanation.
Beyond the Surface
The overarching message of the still life is that the physical world is seductive, yet you are not to be seduced. God’s creation teems with beauty and pleasures, yet these will pass away, and you should not be so consumed by the physical world that you starve the soul. You are called as a Christian to look beneath or beyond the surface. That is why so often the interior of still-life elements are quite literally exposed to sight: We see into the lemon, the bread, the oysters; we see through the clear glass and wine, and shining surfaces reflect an unseen world.
All this was well-understood in the 17th century. Some early still lifes were more labored in advertising their moral intentions than others; the artists added crucifixes and other religious items in the shadows around the alluring foreground objects, or painted slips of paper encumbered with phrases like " Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas " or "Jesus, the most beautiful flower of all."
Later on, the genre did in fact descend from the higher principles it began with into the showy decorativeness and technical display its critics had said it had always evinced. The moral lessons were subordinated to trompe l’oeil illusions and amusing coded pictures of the five senses, the seasons, and the like.
But the still life survived into the Modern era, outliving much of the "serious" art of its day, which today can strike us as too limited in its appeal or subjects, too tied to issues long past relevance. Because their symbolic language is so flexible and derived from familiar sources, still lifes remain as captivating, beautiful, and enigmatic as they were for the 17th-century Dutch. The timelessness of the still life should remind us of the passage of time and the approach of eternity.