Saturday, 31 May 2008

De Heem's still life with glass

Some of this was due to the new found affluence of the middle class beneficiaries of trade from their ports. The mystery is why such painting should have been in Holland alone. Intriguing is also how strong a movement it was. Often farmers would buy up an artist’s work to enjoy as investments and sold them on at local markets. And because there were regular art markets, a painter could be inspired to work without a commission. As such women could paint freely and find an outlet for their talents.

These same Dutch hoarders had early in the same century developed another obsessive interest, this time in tulips, imported from Turkey and sold on and speculated over to the point that many went bust until the market had to be controlled. The painting of tulips was a second best activity to owning a few bulbs, but compensatory all the same. For some the oyster swam the same tide, although in this case with less catastrophic results. The strange thing is that although oysters would have been everyday and commonplace, they still attained the status of much treasured and ostentatious imports and featured among the most expensive and delicious of foods. It was a valuable and much employed symbol.

Invariably it would be displayed along with expensive fruits or game or labour intensive pastries, particular pieces of imported glass or pottery, or cloths from afar. For inland wealthy middle class Europeans, the oyster was seen as similarly precious and exotic. In some cases it was also an artistic device to depict freshness, or even time passing. A surprising number of the great European painters of this time have a visual debt to the oyster as having helped them establish their reputation. From the early 1600s, this school flourished like no other had before or since.

The rise of still-life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands - mainly in the cities of Antwerp, Middelburg, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht – is generally put down to the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. All such products that arrived at trading ports. Painters such Abraham van Beyeren, Floris van Schooten, Frans Snyders, Jan van Kessel, Osias Beert, Pieter Claesz, Jan Davidz de Heem, Clara Peeters' and others all used oysters to deliberate effect. Later they would be followed by the Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and in turn Manet, all of whom contributed to this school.