Still life paintings offer a unique look into the past if one is willing to do a little digging. Unassuming images of florals, banquets, and simple food staples are merely the surface of iconographic masterpieces which reveal an artist’s cultural, social, political, and religious contexts. One such example is Clara Peeters’ Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries from 1615-1625. Although Clara Peeters came from Flanders and was trained in the Flemish Baroque style, her oil on wood piece is typical of art from the Dutch Golden Age with its detailed realism and lack of idealized splendor (Hochstrasser, 186). The subjects of the painting themselves, however, indicate much more than the artist’s geographic placement. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries reveals a different way in which one might present traditional Christian imagery while illustrating the literal fruits of the expansion of trade in Northern Europe.
Peeters lived in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which caused a ripple effect that touched nearly every aspect of European life. These waves are especially evident in art from the period. Iconoclastic groups within the Protestant movement were concerned that people misplaced their faith in images of religious figures and, thus, they discouraged the use of such imagery (Burke 54). This decline in biblical art presented the opportunity to explore religious imagery through other subjects. At first glance, Still Life with Cheeses is merely an artful display of cheese and produce in which Peeters’ skill at rendering realistic textures is evident. However, the painting can also be interpreted as a religiously-based reminder to remain pure and refrain from gluttony.
On the right half of the composition, one sees a plate of cheese and butter, a roll of bread, and three cherries. The bread and trio of cherries are representative of the Eucharist and the Trinity. The cheese and butter (items of abundance in the Dutch Republic) are symbolic of feminine purity and motherhood (Bynum, 264-65). Given the piece’s decidedly Catholic tone, it is fair to say that the dairy items are connected to the Virgin Mary and perhaps correspond to older images of Mary nursing Jesus of Nazareth. The food and the painting itself are divided by a knife, a symbol of betrayal (Hochstrasser, 186). To the left of the knife lies a mirrored plate upon which sits a halved artichoke and another handful of cherries. The mirrored plate in concert with the artichoke and cherries suggests vanity as well as lust. The halved artichoke ‘ considered a luxury and an aphrodisiac by some (Wheaton 67)’ is quite O’Keeffe-esque and might be read as a warning against lustful thoughts and actions. The division of the cherries communicates the importance of moderation. Additionally, the salt cellar in the upper-left section of the painting resembles a scale and acts as a reminder to lead a balanced lifestyle as a safeguard against sinful living (Peeters, web).
Still Life with Cheeses is not merely a composition fraught with religious meaning. It is also indicative of the Dutch Republic’s growing trade network and, hence, goods newly available to Dutch citizens. As mentioned, cheese, dairy, bread are staple foods in Northern Europe. Cherries and artichokes, however, are cultivated largely in the warmer climate of the Mediterranean region. Their presence in the painting illustrates increasing variety in the Dutch diet due to commercial expansion. However, given the religious overtones of the painting, they may also serve as a warning against excessive consumption of luxurious items. One might even venture to guess that Peeters is conveying a message about the perils of cross-cultural mingling. Peeters completed her works in the midst of the Age of Exploration and this piece is particularly reflective of one of the material outcomes of increased trade ‘ the availability of colorful, tasty food.
There are certainly other lenses through which one might examine Peeters’ Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries: how an artist’s gender influenced their selection of subjects, a more detailed look at the fruit dishes, or the reasons why Peeters’ chose a monochromatic palette. However, an exploration of the painting’s religious imagery and contrasting food staples is an excellent launching place to examine the changing European socio-religious landscape. Such an exploration touches on the cultural force of the Reformation, emerging economic dominance of the European powers, and the beginnings of what one now refers to as globalism. These influences and Peeters’ ability to seamlessly and discreetly convey ideas laden with social significance are certainly evident in Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries.
- Brook, Timothy. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008. Print.
- Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.
- Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. Print.
- Hochstrasser, Julie. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.
- Peeters, Clara. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichokes, and Cherries. 1615-1625. LACMA, Ahmanson Building. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichokes, and Cherries. LACMA. Web.
- Wheaton, Barbara Ketcham. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1983. Print.