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Visitor trails Still Life Painting, Northern Europe

Paintings - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Friday Saturday Sunday

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Deux singes pillant une corbeille de fruits (détail)
Deux singes pillant une corbeille de fruits (détail)

© Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier - M. Bard

00Introduction

Still life painting in northern Europe depicts familiar, everyday objects, and provides a unique point of contact between painting and daily life. But behind the mirage of abundance, the pleasing array of produce and objects, the paintings invite the viewer to discover a subtler message, exploring questions of appearance and reality, and the nature of symbolism.

From the 16th century onwards, and especially in the 17th century, artists in northern Europe, Flanders and Holland excelled at painting minutely detailed representations of objects from everyday life. The term "still life" came to apply to compositions of inanimate objects, tables set for meals, or food. Images of domestic life, in the form of kitchen scenes, displays of foodstuffs, and meals became an important genre in their own right, and were highly regarded throughout northern Europe. Over time, still life compositions assumed ever-greater importance within scenes of this type; gradually, they began to dominate the picture space. The carefully-arranged displays of foodstuffs and objects took a variety of forms, culminating in sumptuous depictions of tables laid with fine tableware, overflowing with food, and sometimes accompanied by figures of people and animals. Such pictures served a dual purpose as documentary records of everyday scenes, and symbolic allusions to philosophical ideas, chief among which was the concept of "vanitas" or vanity. Still life paintings allowed artists to combine allegorical representations of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death and decay, with religious symbols, Biblical references, and dazzlingly realistic depictions of familiar objects and contemporary foodstuffs. Today, their veiled pictorial language has become unfamiliar to us. Its multiple layers of meaning have gradually become lost. This thematic trail aims to help rediscover some of the original ideas behind particular works of still life, and to explore the religious symbols, moral values, and ideals inherent in these heightened, virtuoso depictions of reality.

 

How to get to the next stop:

From the Pyramid, go to the Richlieu wing and take the large escalator on the right, leading to the second floor. Walk through the first three rooms (French paintings), until you reach the galleries of northern European painting. Start on the left, in room 4: Dutch paintings. Follow the galleries devoted to Dutch 16th-century painting, until you reach room 11.

Kitchen Scene
Kitchen Scene

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

01Kitchen Scene

At first sight paintings such as this, depicting abundant heaps of food, seem to reflect a confident, affirmative view of the society that produced them: they are eloquent images of a unique economic climate, itself the result of a favorable combination of circumstances in northern Europe, especially Holland and Flanders, during the 16th and 17th centuries. Superficially, perhaps, the paintings reflect not only a certain worldview – the preferences and tastes of a specific public – but also an enduring period of economic prosperity. The region's increasingly abundant supply of goods, and the expanding, newly rich middle classes, are depicted quite explicitly in the paintings of the day. Opulent, seductive piles of food such as painted here by Joachim Beuckelaer, and in other contemporary kitchen scenes, were indeed a feature of everyday life in many northern European homes. As such, the paintings are true reflections of reality, advertising their patrons' comfortable lifestyles and social status, inciting conspicuous consumption, and encouraging people to contemplate their bountiful environment with satisfaction and complacency. Paintings such as this may be seen as virtuoso variations on a common theme: celebratory images in praise of the incomparable wealth and opulence of northern Europe.

How to get to the next stop:

Follow the signs through the galleries of Flemish painting, to room 33 (mid- and late-17th century Dutch paintings).

Still Life with Carp
Still Life with Carp

© 1995 RMN / Gérard Blot

02Still life with Carp

Still life paintings generally depict "harvested foodstuffs" – the incomparably rich, diverse fruits of human agriculture, ingenuity and perseverance. Food of another kind – the harvest of the sea and rivers in the form of seafood and, most especially, fish – was another favorite subject, painted with great interest and attention to detail by Flemish and Dutch artists of the day. Fish and fishing may well have symbolized the region's economic power, and its importance as a center for trade. In this context, still lifes of fish certainly testify to the wealth of the markets in northern ports. Like domestic kitchen scenes, they reflect a world of plenty. At the same time, they express another, quite different artistic consideration – a simple desire to create an illusory image, a painting so life-like that it borders on trompe l'œil, as here in Abraham van Beyeren's Still life with Carp. Paintings such as this may be seen as metaphors for the complex, dynamic environment that created them, or more simply as aesthetic explorations of the possibilities of painting itself. Thanks to artful scene-setting on the part of the painter, the still life genre was extended to incorporate foodstuffs and assorted kitchen utensils, opening in the background onto a landscape, or a seascape, itself sometimes even peopled by figures.

How to get to the next stop:

Walk through to the galleries of Dutch painting of the mid and late17th century – room 39.

Game and Hunting Accessories on a Window Ledge
Game and Hunting Accessories on a Window Ledge

© 1993 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

03Game and Hunting Accessories Arranged on a Window Ledge

Similar to kitchen scenes overflowing with cuts of meat, still lifes with hunting accessories and game are a frequent subject in northern European painting. The pictures help us to reconstruct the historical context of hunting as it was practised at the time, by members of the nobility and the privileged classes, rather than ordinary people. As with this example, one of many similar pieces by Jan Weenix, hunting still lifes are deliberately highly realistic. The game, strung up in the manner of a trophy, is depicted against a background of greenery, and thrown into sharp relief by a tromple l'œil representation of a balustrade or window ledge. The central figure of the hare is accompanied by a variety of hunting accessories, including a game bag, weapons and other accoutrements used for hunting with dogs. Often, dead and living game animals are depicted in the same composition. The paintings serve a dual purpose, both documentary and aesthetic, but their significance extends beyond that of straighforward still life painting. They clearly reflect a common artistic theme of the time, namely the "Hymn to Nature", although the raw, primeval cruelty of the hunt is softened (if not completely obliterated) by their refined composition, painterly virtuosity and astonishing realism. We are invited to look beyond the banal, everyday reality of the picture's subject (a dead animal, destined to be eaten). Instead, hunting trophies are treated as symbols of baroque splendor, and worthy artistic objects in their right.

How to get to the next stop:

Return to the Flemish painting galleries, room 27, case 1.

Still Life with Ham
Still Life with Ham

© 2003 RMN / Franck Raux

04Still life with Ham

Everyday items – mostly cooked food and other comestibles – were quickly incorporated into organized compositions depicting tables set for a meal. Paintings of this type invariably followed a strict set of rules. The viewer looks down on the tabletop from a slightly raised viewpoint, and the various foodstuffs are clearly separated from each other or, occasionally, piled on top of one another, like the cheeses seen here. The tables are always aligned parallel to the picture surface, most often covered with a cloth or rug marked by creased folds which do not always respect the frontal perspective of the tabletop and picture frame. Early compositions showing tables set for a meal – often breakfast or a light snack, as here in this Still life with Ham by Floris Van Schooten – seem to invite the viewer to partake of the food depicted. Virtuoso, trompe l'oeil treatments of foodstuffs are a common feature, with monochrome tonalities and realistic, quasi-scientific detail designed to draw attention to the painter's skill. The painter is "magnifying" nature, using specific techniques to recreate volume and spatial depth, although the overall impression is still relatively flat. Increasingly, the arrangement of the food – albeit relatively simple and straightforward – is calculated to suggest consumption. The paintings depict food and drink, but most importantly, they also represent the act of eating and drinking.

How to get to the next stop:

Flemish galleries, room 24 – Van Dyck Room.

Still Life with Peeled Lemon
Still Life with Peeled Lemon

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

05Still life with Peeled Lemon

Still life compositions featuring tables set for a meal may also take on a more complex character, as in this painting by Jan Davidsz. de Heem. Pictures such as this challenge the painter to demonstrate his technical virtuosity, his skill at devising ever-more sophisticated compositions, in which the various elements are not simply juxtaposed, but organized into a harmonious, aesthetic scene. Subconsciously, these sumptuous presentations invite the viewer to question their meaning: do the paintings' overtly decorative qualities indicate a simple documentary function, with no deeper significance? Do their insistent realism and "presence" serve any purpose other than to catch the viewer's eye, and invite our aesthetic admiration? Might the images of tables laden with food take on another, symbolic significance?
Do the carefully-orchestrated structure and composition of paintings such as this reflect an equally orchestrated attempt to communicate a visual warning against the dangers of fatuous excess? Here, and in Pierre van Boucle's painting Butcher's Meat with a Dog and Cat, the introduction of living creatures in the form of domestic animals undermines the paintings' refined composition, bringing movement, disorder, and life into the domain of still life. Perhaps artists of the day used animals to add a deliberate touch of humor, or to create a "photographic" impression of a single instant of everyday life, captured in paint? Perhaps the animals gradually came to be seen as personifications of essentially human qualities and faults?

How to get to the next stop:

Flemish galleries, room 21.

Fruit and Vegetables with a Monkey, a Parrot, and a Squirrel
Fruit and Vegetables with a Monkey, a Parrot, and a Squirrel

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

06Fruit and Vegetables with a Monkey, Parrot and Squirrel

Over time, the arrangements of abundant varieties of fruit and vegetables that characterized still life painting became codified into a set of specific representational types. Whether isolated and separate, or arranged in complex, sophisticated compositions, the items depicted acquired a significance beyond their straightforward, documentary role as an inventory of contemporary produce: they became the pretext for painterly experiments in composition and the use of color.
Snyders's inventive composition celebrates nature and the sensuous enjoyment of food, with a additional cast of animals. Snyders's paintings – apparently executed mainly as decorative works for dining-rooms – often feature human figures, landscapes or multiple representatives of the animal kingdom. At first sight, this picture impresses us as a virtuouso rendering of the sheer materiality of its subject: the painting is a hyper-realistic reflection of reality, and quite literally a feast for the eyes. But the presence of living animals such as the monkey, indicates an implicit, didactic moral message for the viewer. The parrot, the birds, and the cat – like the monkey – personify specifically human failings. They may also function as allegorical references to Good and Evil. In Christian symbolism, the butterfly is sometimes used to represent the soul, or the resurrection of Christ. The fruit and vegetables are also imbued with allegorical and symbolic signficance. Lemons – a highly expensive foodstuff, and a popular motif at the time – are often shown peeled, with an attractive play of light on their translucent flesh, yet they are also unpalatably bitter, symbolizing the specious nature of earthly beauty. Artichokes, asparagus and strawberries were, for their part, symbolic of the fruits of Paradise.

How to get to the next stop:

Follow the signs to the galleries of Dutch painting in the mid-17th century, room 37.

Still Life with Candlestick
Still Life with Candlestick

© 2004 RMN / Franck Raux

07Still life with Candlestick

Often, still life paintings express a specific religious meaning, as here in this sober, refined Still life with Candlestick attributed to Barend van der Meer. Symbolizing the passage of time, and the corruption of matter, the candle and candlestick function as signs, reminding us of the ephemeral, perishable nature of the objects displayed in the painting. Often, pictures such as this are full of explicit allusions to the life of Christ. Sometimes, references to Christ's life, death or resurrection are centered on significant details or objects, such as the shroud-like white cloth arranged in a triangular shape in the center of Barend's composition. Familiar from earlier images of tables set for meals – where it is often laid out flat on the tabletop, marked with sharply-creased folds – the white cloth takes on a quite different significance here. Certain items, such as walnuts, grapes, and wine, reflect and enhance the picture's specifically religious context. The frequent allusions to the resurrection of Christ, death and the passage of time take a variety of forms. The religious teachings of the day, propounding the futility and hubris of accumulated wealth and luxury, find their fullest espression here. The concept of vanitas is closely linked to the iconography of still life painting. Still life paintings draw heavily on the moral messages expressed in the iconography of their day, while at the same time retaining their essential ambivalence and ambiguity: are they simply straighforward documentary records of things seen, or vehicles for metaphysical, even spiritual concepts?

How to get to the next stop:

Return to the galleries of 17th-century Flemish painting, room 20: at the top of the staircase.

Two Monkeys Stealing Fruit from a Basket
Two Monkeys Stealing Fruit from a Basket

© 2008 RMN / Thierry Ollivier

08Two Monkeys Stealing Fruit from a Basket

Still life paintings express a specific worldview. Their visually appealing, anecdotal compositions of vegetables and tables set with food – ostensibly their chief subject, painted with great zest and realism – mask a powerful, moralizing purpose. This strategy (if indeed it can be described as such), is generally organized around a small, entirely fabricated fable. The resulting pictorial message draws on traditional still life motifs, for less obvious, more specifically high-minded ends. Through the inclusion of animals, and particularly monkeys, Snyders's still life advertises its status as a vanitas painting in the broadest sense of the term – a pictorial sermon on the evils of disorder, itself the antithesis of morality. The painting can no longer be seen as a straighforward still life. Instead, it is clearly associated with themes relating to the moral ambiguity and inanity of human activity, expressed through a collection of symbolic motifs with a significance far beyond the straightforward representation of inanimate foodstuffs. Living creatures (the monkeys) are clearly presented as harbingers of disorder. Their presence "lifts" the picture to a new level of meaning. The painting should doubtless be seen as a resounding critique of human failings, and a clear exhortation to more moral behaviour, through its careful pictorial catalog of a range of faults, such as gluttony, excess, frivolity and above all, disorderliness, the fear of change.

How to get to the next stop:

Galleries of 17th-century Flemish painting, room 26.

A Table of Desserts
A Table of Desserts

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

09A Table of Desserts

Still life paintings of tables laid with elaborate banquets clearly refer to the culture of sumptuous luxury which gradually spread throughout northern Europe during the 17th century. At the same time, such pictures also express a quite different view of the riches depicted. This ornate still life by the Antwerp painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem – the most talented exponent of the genre – is distinguished by its near-flawless technical virtuosity, skillfully deploying the full gamut of painterly effects to depict the bounty of nature, and the wealth of human culture. Refined dishes and natural produce are presented as part of a carefully-arranged composition expressing the quintessence of luxury and sensuous delight.
Pictures such as this clearly represent still life painting at its most theatrical. But the composition also contains numerous references to the concept of vanitas, deliberately counterbalancing its explicit depiction of opulent wealth. Paintings of banqueting tables are remarkable for the subtlety of their message, delivered by means of a seamless pictorial synthesis: the elaborate, sophisticated compositions express a sense of self-satisfied complacency, while at the same time delivering a volley of symbolic warnings. Here, the picture's superficial subject-matter and symbolic content form an indissociable whole: the formal challenges of still life painting (fundamental issues of composition and style) are subtly intertwined with moralizing homilies and visual symbols exploring the ephemeral character of our sensual, material existence. An extraodinary tour de force that succeeds in combining artistic perfection with the reality of nature, and life itself.

How to get to the next stop:

Follow the Dutch galleries to the exit, and take the large escalator back to the Pyramid.