On Dutch Still Lifes (contributor post)

"Still Life with Herring," by Pieter Claesz (at the MFA, Boston)

Regarding the tradition of Dutch still life painting, Cynthia H., from Boston, writes in with these thoughts:

It may seem paradoxical, but the best portrayers of food in art are a people not known for its cuisine. I'm talking about the Dutch and their still lifes. While others have also made still lifes with food (Italians, French, Spaniards,) no one comes close to the Dutch, particularly in their Golden Age of the 17th century.
Still lifes do not always feature food; they often have flowers as a subject. But the culinarily-challenged Netherlands loved to portray oysters, fish, lobsters, lemons, ham, turkey, pie, wine, grapes, bread, nuts...
There are a number of reasons for this emphasis. Dutch religious beliefs and practices discouraged the representation of Christian subjects so prevalent in Catholic countries. They are not the direct heirs of Greco-Roman civilization, thus they are less likely to indulge in classical topics. Holland was wealthy and bourgeois in the 17th century- patrons were often citizens seeking to decorate their homes, not aristocrats or the Church as elsewhere in Europe.
But why the excellence of these still lifes regarding food? How did they make great art out of half-eaten bread and peeled lemons?
A clue comes from the term used in the Romance languages for "still life"- dead nature. This food (and flowers, too) is captured at the moment when it is no longer alive (on the tree, in the sea), but has not yet deteriorated or been consumed. It mysteriously seizes the intersection of life, death and immortality. Food means life, but food and life are subject to death and deterioration. But not if you have a still life that looks exactly like the real thing- except that it will exist indefinitely. The same is true of portraits, another Dutch specialty. Think of all of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
To conclude, the meaning of the Dutch still life is that expressed in John Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn- we come and go, but the represented subjects in art live (tellingly, Greek urns were also associated with food.) Or to use the words of the great modern still life artist, Giorgio Morandi: "nothing is as abstract as the real." And nothing is more real than a Dutch still life. 

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