German master c. 1620, Vanitas Still Life with Skull, Wax Jack and Pocket Sundial, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

BASEL.- Dewdrops on dainty petals, light glancing off precious silverware, candied confectionery in blue and white Chinese porcelain bowls, the soft plumage of a dead songbird, the pale hue of a skull – still lifes have not ceased to exercise their spell upon us to this day with their close-up views of inanimate, yet by no means lifeless objects reproduced with painterly finesse. However, still life painting was anything but a merely aesthetic affair, even if today’s viewer tends to perceive it as such. It reflects not only a feeling of transitoriness and a longing for redemption, but also the pleasure of visually representing exotic trading goods with which Dutch and other merchants made their fortunes. Assembling the superb holdings of the Städel Museum, the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, and the Kunstmuseum Basel, the exhibition unfolds a spectrum of still life painting in the Netherlands and Germany from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries with more than ninety masterpieces by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Willem Kalf, Rachel Ruysch, Abraham Mignon, Georg Flegel, Jan Soreau, Gottfried von Wedigh, and Sebastian Stosskopf. This offers a panorama of the genre’s different varieties from prosaic pieces of the early seventeenth century to later works depicting things of splendor, from banquet still lifes to sumptuous bouquets and picturesque animal still lifes.

Since its emancipation from the religious painting of the late Middle Ages, when objects mainly served as symbols or attributes, still lifes initially provided a means of understanding and interpreting things from the viewer’s everyday world that were lying still. These objects reflected the order and structure of the Baroque era’s superior abstract world: the human senses or a certain temperament, the elements or the seasons informing the individual’s world, or transitoriness and guilty mankind’s need of redemption.

Yet, both the painters’ and the collectors’ and clients’ economic reality and its specifics also manifested itself in the still lifes as early as in the seventeenth century. The same merchant princes and investors who, primarily in the Netherlands, strove to make their country the most powerful trading nation of the globe, importing exotic goods into Europe from all over the world, ordered still lifes for decorating their town palaces and country houses with pictures revealing the sources of their wealth such as foreign spices, Venetian glass, and Chinese porcelain.

With the artists’ concentration on a few, often the same objects, still life painting gradually also turned in an ideal field of experimentation for their possibilities of expression. Painterly issues of representation became more important than the originally so prominent contents many works were charged with without ever replacing them entirely. It was above all in still life painting which held a low position in the hierarchy of genre categories that the artist had to prove his specific skills and a work’s attraction and value depended on its composition and ingenious assemblage of objects, its convincing coloring and masterly brushstroke. The paintings also evidence the expertise in rendering the most different materials and surfaces in a manner that deceives the eye. The artists experimented with various kinds of lighting from the even brightness of daylight to the weak glow of a single candle, utilizing them for the mise-en-scène of manifold situations and moods.

The exhibition, structured to provide the visitor with a survey outlining the development of the genre between 1500 and 1800 and to convey an idea of the most important subjects and varieties of still life painting, commences with early still life forms from the dawn of the modern age. The first section illustrates the process of the still life’s emancipation from a symbolically charged accessory of religious painting to a subject in its own right. The following chapter dedicated to the early autonomous still life around 1600 with Jan Brueghel and Georg Flegel as main representatives marks a first highlight of the exhibition thanks to the selection of particularly fabulous works on display. The next group comprises banquet and vanitas still lifes introducing the visitor to the symbolism of Baroque imagery and its very peculiar oscillations between sensual appeal and admonitions about the transitoriness of worldly existence. The vanitas, the vanity and futility, of all things becomes visible in distinctive symbols, such as a skull, a candle going out, or a clock symbolizing the passage of time.

The following sections presenting fish and hunting still lifes as well as cartouche pictures convey the seventeenth-century painters’ extreme specialization in certain varieties, which offered them strategic advantages on the art market as monopolists in a certain field in their town. These still lifes represented primarily by a larger number of works by Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Willem van Aelst are not only aimed at a display of splendor but also demonstrate the artists’ painterly virtuosity in minute details.

The last chapter of the exhibition is dedicated to the eighteenth century: here, “the magic of things” becomes especially manifest in Justus Juncker’s works, who, for example, presents a huge pear like a monument on a pedestal. The section comprises no fewer than three masterpieces by the great French still life painter Jean Siméon Chardin. He required just a few laconic brushstrokes to lend the objects of his still lifes, which constitute the final highlight of the exhibition, an incredible presence.

Artists: Willem van Aelst, Pieter Aertsen, Abraham van Beyeren, Peter Binoit, Jan Brueghel d. Ä., Jan Brueghel d. J., Jean Siméon Chardin, Adriaen Coorte, Georg Flegel, Jan Fyt, Willem Claesz. Heda, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Cornelis de Heem, David Cornelisz. de Heem, Hans Holbein d. J., Justus Juncker, Willem Kalf, Jan van Kessel, Simon Luttichuys, Jacob Marrel, Abraham Mignon, Pieter de Ring, Ludger tom Ring d. J., Rachel Ruysch, Isaak Soreau, Peter Soreau, Harmen Steenwijck, Sebastian Stoskopff, Jan van de Velde, Jacob van Walscapelle, Gottfried von Wedig, Jan Weenix, a.o.


Jeremias van Winghe, Kitchen Scene, 1613, Historisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main