Clara Peeters (Antwerp 1594–after 1657 ?), Still Life of Fish and Cat, n.d.; Oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 in. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. National Museum of Women in the Arts © 2012 National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Clara Peeters’s considerable skill at rendering naturalistic texture and detail is on full display in Still Life of Fish and Cat. Typically called a “breakfast piece,” this type of still life realistically depicts household abundance, with no subtle moral or subtext.
The reddish ceramic colander holds several types of fish, including an eel. Its long, slender body forms a prominent loop that adds visual interest to the upper left of this still life. Peeters increased the illusion of space within the picture by including several reflections in the metal dish.
The varied textures of slippery fish scales, thickly glazed clay, cat's fur, rough oyster shells, and a gleaming pewter dish enhance the sensory qualities of the painting. The cat, with its ears pointed back, stands alert to any potential interloper as it protects its fishy fortune.
A pioneer in the field of still-life painting, Clara Peeters is the only Flemish woman known to have specialized in such pictures as early as the first decade of the 17th century.
While definite details concerning her life are scarce, records indicate that Peeters was baptized in Antwerp in 1594 and married there in 1639. There is no indication that Peeters ever joined the Antwerp painters’ guild, but the records for many relevant years are missing.
Peeters’s earliest dated oil paintings, from 1607 and 1608, are small-scale, detailed images representing food and beverages. The skill with which this 14-year-old artist executed such pictures indicates that she must have been trained by a master painter. Although there is no documentary evidence of her artistic education, scholars believe that Peeters was a student of Osias Beert, a noted still-life painter from Antwerp.
By 1612, the 18-year-old artist was producing large numbers of painstakingly rendered still lifes, typically displaying groupings of valuable objects, such as elaborately decorated metal goblets, gold coins, and exotic flowers. Her compositions often show these arrangements on narrow ledges, seen from low vantage points, against dark backgrounds.