Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 10, 2006
Pieter Biesboer Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life Waanders, 2004. 144 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9040090068)
Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, November 27, 2004–April 4, 2005; Kunsthaus Zürich, April 22–August 22, 2005; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., September 18–December 31, 2005
Pieter Claesz. Still Life with the Covered Cup of the Haarlem Brewer's Guild. 1641. Oil on panel. 66.5 x 48 cm (26 3/16 x 18 7/8 inches). Teresa Heinz.

It is perhaps not surprising that the exhibition of the still lifes of Pieter Claesz. at the National Gallery in Washington is the first monographic show devoted to this artist. As a friend commented on paging through the catalogue, “His works are rather all of a piece, aren’t they?” It is very likely that more than one curator has turned away from the idea of such a show out of concern that the public might find the work too much alike to sustain interest. It is undeniably true that Claesz. devoted most of his career to painting still lifes marked by a strikingly limited repertoire of objects rendered in muted colors. The exhibition demonstrates, however, what admirers of Claesz.’s work have known all along—his ability to alter his images through the most subtle changes in composition, choice and placement of objects, effects of light and reflection, and control of textural effects. While of a piece, these still lifes offer seemingly endless patterns of theme and variation that reward careful examination from picture to picture. In doing so, the paintings encourage a viewer’s imaginative engagement through appeals to the senses, as well as to an identification with foods for human consumption arranged among objects made by human beings and clearly ordered and disordered by someone’s hands. It is in contemplating this implicit human touch and presence that one understands the use of the term “narrative” as applied to these still lifes in one of the catalogue essays.

Though the exhibition in Washington shares a core of only nineteen pictures with the versions of the show displayed in Haarlem and Zürich, the twenty-seven paintings by Claesz. in the exhibition provide a good overview of his career and characteristic treatment of themes. The show is usefully amplified by the inclusion of still lifes by Floris van Dijck and Willem Claesz. Heda borrowed from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, as well as by pictures from the National Gallery’s own collection. The most notable of these is the impressive picture by the Antwerp still life master Osias Beert that demonstrates the close link between the Haarlem tabletop still life of the first decades of the seventeenth century and those invented only slightly before in Antwerp by Beert and Clara Peeters. That Claesz. is himself of Flemish origin also points to the importance of Antwerp painting for the rise of distinctively Dutch still lifes and for the development of Dutch Golden Age painting more generally. The Washington venue also makes good use of the museum’s Dutch cabinet galleries to display examples of glass, metal, and earthenware objects immediately adjacent to the pictures by Claesz. inhabited by fictive versions of these utensils.

The most striking of these juxtapositions of painted and real objects is that of the oval picture in the collection of Teresa Heinz (no. 34) depicting the gilt covered cup of the Haarlem St. Martin’s Guild alongside the original cup by Ernst Jansz. van Vianen on loan from the Frans Hals Museum. Although Claesz.’s picture departs from the original cup in a number of ways, it is in effect a “portrait” of this vessel and clearly a commissioned work, which raises questions as to how exact Claesz.’s depictions of objects are and how Claesz. actually worked. Are the gilt covered cups in other pictures as identifiable as that in the Heinz picture (for example, no. 29 from Winterthur)? Was the artist necessarily always working with real luxury objects? In the case of a painter like Abraham van Beyeren, it seems doubtful that he was. If Claesz. had real vessels of this kind to work from, how would he have come into possession of such rare and costly cups? Do we necessarily assume a collector or patron provided the vessels? An intriguing case is the ornate silver tazza that appears in a number of Heda still lifes between 1630 and 1634, and then in Claesz.’s paintings for a few years beginning in 1636 (see nos. 28 and 29). If it is the same vessel, its presence stimulates speculation as to the relationship between the two artists, as well as suggesting various scenarios involving their borrowing the cup from a patron or art lover. It might well prove rewarding to trace more carefully the appearances of specific objects in Claesz.’s and Heda’s pictures—for example, the triangular standing salt with winged legs that appears in a number of Claesz.’s pictures in the mid-1640s (notably the picture in St. Louis of 1643) and then disappears. In contrast to the more ordinary roemers, berkemeyers, and pewter plates, the comings and goings of these very specific objets de luxe would seem to argue that the artist was mostly working from real things arranged before him.

The survey of Claesz.’s career in the exhibition ends with a dated work of 1656 (no. 47) that depicts a fish still life with a cat, which is a novel feature for Claesz. and suggests a willingness to experiment with his standard repertory of themes until the end of his career. And he remained active to the end—there are signed and dated paintings from the year of his death, 1660. For the most part, the examples chosen for all the venues of the show are strong, characteristic works. The one exception seems to me to be “Breakfast Piece with a Large Roemer” (no. 42) dated 1646, from a private collection. The flat execution in many passages and superficial highlights of the punten on the roemer seem, like the signature, uncharacteristic of Claesz. himself.

While providing a good sense of this artist’s career and work as well as a review of the scant documentary evidence of his life, both the exhibition and the catalogue nonetheless understate to a degree some of the most visually striking and innovative aspects of Claesz.’s works. One of these is his development of the monochrome or tonal style itself. While not truly monochromatic, the range of colors in these works is sharply reduced and must lead one to question how this fits with another development emphasized in the exhibition, which is the enhanced naturalism and sense of immediacy of Claesz.’s still lifes. This effect has partly to do with the lowered viewpoint that gives the impression of a more direct encounter, and also with the artist’s close attentiveness to sparkling effects of light playing over and reflecting from and through many different surfaces. The muted color, however, cannot be seen as a sign of greater naturalism since it is a stylization of the seen world, and as such it emphasizes the artifice of the works. That these pictures are at once naturalistic and carefully crafted fictions is evident also in the lack of setting—most of these pictures depict no rooms, walls, floors, chairs, or other furniture—and the low, almost head-on viewpoint suggests the position of someone sitting. Henry Gregory’s catalogue essay focuses attention on another conventional feature of these pictures, specifically, the fact that they do not for the most part depict actual meals, rendering foods like raised pies that were relatively rare on even wealthy Dutch tables and omitting some ordinary staples like butter, cheese, stews, and soups. The sophisticated artifice evident in color reduction is related to another feature of Claesz.’s paintings that warrants more emphasis—namely, a relatively loose, open painterly technique, which is a feature his tonal works share with tonal landscapes by Jan van Goyen. This handling of paint is especially striking at the National Gallery because the exhibition ends at the entrance to a gallery in which one can examine outstanding still lifes by Willem van Aelst, Jacob van Walscapelle, and Jan Davidsz. de Heem. In their pictures the vividness of color and the exquisite refinement of touch, indeed the nearly total absence of brushwork, form the strongest contrast to the works in the adjacent exhibition.

The artfulness and sophistication of taste implicit in the reduction in color and relative breadth of execution of Claesz.’s pictures suggests an alternative to economic explanations for the rise of tonalism in Dutch art that have been advanced. Curiously these hypotheses are not directly addressed in the catalogue. The late Michael Montias famously proposed that these phenomena be explained as product innovations: painting less meticulously allows an artist to paint more pictures in the same amount of time, permitting him to meet increased demand for his work (“Cost and Value in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art,” Art History, 10 (1987): 455–456, esp. 459–462). Alternatively, the eminent historian Jonathan Israel has advanced the hypothesis that resumption of the war with Spain in 1621 and ensuing economic dislocations resulted in both restrictions on supplies of pigments as well as a shrinking of the art market leading to an emphasis on smaller pictures painted with fewer colors (“Adjusting to Hard Times: Dutch Art During Its Period of Crisis and Restructuring [ca. 1621–ca. 1645],” Art History, 20 (1997): 449–476, esp. 457–468). Both explanations seem to beg the question as to what would make such economically driven artistic developments acceptable or even comprehensible to artists’ audiences.

Another line of reflection that these images stimulate involves the vexed question of symbolism and meaning in still lifes. At the entrance to the exhibition we read that the bread and wine in the large picture jointly executed by Claesz. and Koets (no. 40) refer to the Eucharist. While I would hesitate to rule out such associations with these objects for a seventeenth-century viewer, I am not persuaded that singling out one or two motifs in a painting makes sense as an interpretive method in that it leaves completely unexplained the balance of the image, in this case the olives, knife, apples, and napkin. While the symbolism of specific objects in most vanitas still lifes is clear enough, it is much less evident how similar objects function in still lifes lacking the reinforcing web of allusions to mortality typical of the vanitas type. Do pocket watches in breakfast or banquet pieces always or solely refer to the passage of time and mortality? Henry Gregory follows the suggestion of Celeste Brusati that the watches may well allude to the time-consuming nature of artistic creation and thus to the prowess of the artist. This interpretation of the watch is related to Martina Brunner-Bulst’s comments in her catalogue essay that the reflected images of the artist in Claesz.’s pictures may well allude not only to transience but also to the notion that the artist’s work extends the life of all that is transitory, defying the effects of time. Such interpretations seems to me a line of thought worth exploring in Dutch still life, for they very much resonate with a striking feature of these pictures—their exquisite attentiveness to surface textures and reflective properties. The idea that the work of art halts the depredations of time is a familiar literary conceit of the period and seems a plausible alternative to the vanitas connotations so often attached to motifs of temporality in paintings.

Gregory’s catalogue essay advances another approach to interpreting these pictures in his suggestive hypothesis that Claesz.’s pictures exhibit a “narrative structure” in the careful arrangement of objects to provoke the viewer’s active contemplation of his pictures. While I would suggest the narrative is implicit as the images are basically motionless, I agree that implications of recent human action are significant features of these works and seem to encourage or guide the viewer’s perusal of the images. Gregory’s comments on the role of a shard of glass in a still life from Edinburgh (fig. 2 in his essay) are particularly thought provoking. There is much to recommend this approach, particularly in that it recognizes the strong implications of human presence in these images, as well as their obvious appeal to the our senses. Far from being simply slices of life, these pictures present us with images that encourage our delight in their sensual appeal and our savoring of their artistry, but that also stimulate our imaginative encounter with and reflection on life, death, time, and human creativity.

Lawrence O. Goedde
Professor, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia