Clara Peeters, Stil Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c. 1615, Mauritshuis, The Hague.
There’s just time for a couple more reflections on art/in art before tomorrow evening. So far we’ve thought about mirrors as a symbol of both Vanity and Prudence (Picture Of The Day 92), and for their ability to create an image, which, like a painting, can both fascinate and enchant (POTD 94). Even though Narcissus’s name has become synonymous with vanity, in Ovid’s tale he was at first unaware that he was looking at himself – he just saw another person, conjured up as real and worthy of his love – which in its own way witnesses to the power of art . In today’s picture we can see several more ‘values’ attached to mirrors, or at least to reflections: they are used to create a greater degree of naturalism, and also function as a type of ‘certification’ – a guarantee that something has been witnessed – and even, as a form of self-validation.
This Still Life painting was created by an expert, there can be no doubt about that. Every surface is perfect, and seems to represent every object more accurately than any photograph could. It is also subtly, but brilliantly composed. I would say it’s highly realistic, but how often would you put your butter on your cheese? Or leave a table quite so crowded, with your valuable Chinese porcelain sticking over the edge? Everything has been manipulated, everything has been very deliberately arranged, to show off its qualities, and to show the artist’s skill. There are three different cheeses on a pewter dish, and on top of these is the butter. Some pretzels line up with the front edge of the table, and to their right a knife is sticking out, next to a porcelain dish with almonds, dried figs and dates – with other almonds and dates scattered on the table. A Venetian glass stands in front of a bread roll, part of which is cast in shadow, and next to this there is an earthenware jug with a pewter lid. The background is dark and featureless, so that the foreground objects seem to glow, almost mysterious and magical.
On the far left we can see that the pewter dish is shiny enough to reflect the largest cheese, with another reflection on the rim at the right. A darker cheese sits in front, and casts a shadow – the light is coming from the left – onto the larger one. Both are – or were – round, and the larger one has a smaller, rectangular cheese sitting on top. All three have rinds, and all three have been hacked into with a sizeable knife, the different surfaces giving a sense of their different textures. Yet another texture is visible in the scrapings of butter which sit on an earthenware dish atop the smallest cheese – they have been cut from the pat with a serrated implement, and curl over each other in a mound of golden goodness. In a wealth of detail, the most brilliant piece of observation must be the plug that has been taken out of the largest cheese with a circular gouge, the result of the cheese inspector taking a sample to check that the produce comes up to the standards required by the Cheesemakers’ Guild. A cylindrical hole emerges from the cut surface, although the ‘plug’, with its circular section of rind, has been reinserted. The right-hand edge of this cheese is in shadow, contrasting with the light shining onto the earthenware jug behind it, pushing the cheese forward, and pulling our eye back to the jug.
Both the dish and the knife are expensive objects. The former, in its delicate blue and white, with subtly scalloped edges, was a highly prized import. It would have been made in China towards the end of the Ming dynasty, during the reign of the emperor Wanli (1573–1620 – so contemporary with this painting). Wanli (or Wan-Li) porcelain became highly fashionable in the Dutch Republic, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Delft Porcelain Manufactory – still producing the familiar blue and white Delftware today. It fetched enormous prices at auction: one feature of this painting is that it contrasts everyday foods (cheese) with luxurious objects. Here it contains dried figs, dates and almonds – which, like the dish itself would have been imported, and considered a luxury. Like the cheeses, each has been displayed to show it off to its best advantage, and to show the artist’s ability with form, texture, and even, I think, density.
The knife is also an expensive item, but it would have been produced locally. Known as a bridal knife, because they were made to be given at weddings, it is decorated with personifications of some of the virtues of the bride herself: these two are ones we have already met (POTD 42, 45 & 59). To our right (so nearer the end) is a woman carrying a cross – which would identify her as Faith even without the Latin word Fides inscribed underneath. Closer to the blade is another woman, pouring liquid from one jug into another, the standard representation of Temperance – she is watering down the wine. The inscription below only has space for the first four letters, Temp, as in English. But most importantly, surely, it also bears the name of the artist – Clara Peeters. This is her signature. She has put her name on the most prominent object, on the edge of the table and sticking out into our space, almost as if she is inviting us to pick it up and inspect it, a trick played by artists since the earliest days of trompe l’oeil painting.
We know very little about Clara Peeters – there are almost no documents that mention her – so most evidence comes from her work. About forty paintings can be identified, all of which are Still Lives, at a time when the genre was only just coming into its own – so she was one of the innovators. One of the few documents in which she is mentioned says that she came from Antwerp, and although she never became a member of the artists’ guild there, at least six of the panels she used were certified in Antwerp (like the cheese, everything was subject to guild regulations – unless you worked for a Royal Court). Even some of the knives in her paintings have the hallmark – and name – of the City of Antwerp on their blades. Some have suggested that putting her name on a bridal knife implies she was married, but there’s nothing else to support that – or, for that matter, to say that she wasn’t. Nor is there any evidence of when she was born or died – apart from the dates on eleven of her paintings, which range from 1607 – 1621. Presumably, if she was working in 1607, she can’t have been born much after 1590 – the latest date suggested for her birth. The Mauritshuis, which bought this painting in 2012, suggests ‘1580/90’, whereas the Prado, which owns four of her works, and hosted a monographic exhibition in 2017, is more specific, with ‘1588-90’. Both have to content themselves with ‘after 1621’ for the date of her death.
There is another, really expensive import, on the right of the painting: a Venetian glass. Peeters has perfected the depiction of every different technique used by the Murano masters – there must be names for these, but I know next to nothing about glassware. It is beaded and stippled, though, and has gold incorporated into the glass in various places. This is where we see the importance of reflection for naturalistic depiction, as each reflection is slightly different according to whether the glass is plain or patterned, clear or golden, concave or convex. The light also catches the meniscus of the wine, and reflects from the back of the glass. There is a rhombus of light, the reflection from a window, which is presumably behind our right shoulder – so not the window from which the majority of light falls onto the objects in the painting. I can’t help thinking that there is something in between the window and the glass, though, as there is a shadow in the middle of the reflection. These highlights contrast with those on the earthenware jug, a local product but, given the lowly material, still of superb craftsmanship, notably in the stylised faun’s head on the vessel’s neck. The pewter lid is also depicted in all its intricacy, and has an even more important reflection – or even two.
A third of the way from right to left of the pewter lid, just emerging from the shadow, is a face, with a second, more distorted version, in the rim underneath. This is the artist herself, and these tiny, reflected self portraits were one of her ‘hallmarks’. I suspect that the shadow in the reflection of the window is her too. She was not the first artist to do this. Ever since the two figures were seen in the mirror of the Arnolfini portrait, it has been assumed that Jan van Eyck was one of them– although there is absolutely no way we can be sure. However, in his Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele painted at more or less the same time, there is a standing figure reflected in the shield of St George, which is more likely to be the artist. However, we still can’t be certain it’s him. So why should we think this is Clara Peeters? Well, because she puts herself into quite a few of her own paintings, and the image is similar in each, given the limitations of representation – not only are the reflections small, but they are reflected on less-than-perfect surfaces.
Not only that, but in some paintings, the reflected figure is holding a palette and paintbrushes. The detail on the right comes from the painting on the left – the gilt goblet towards the back on the right has at least six self portraits, one in each of the raised circles. Not only does the inclusion of these images vouch for her powers of observation, and her skill at reproducing what she sees, but it also asserts her position as at the artist – another type of signature – and her position as a female artist at that. Given that her paintings were included in collections across Europe, as far afield as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Madrid, it also suggests that she was a successful one. And that is hardly surprising – she was brilliant. She should be better known!