Dutch Still Life

Email a Friend

Visit Old Amsterdam/New Amsterdam at WNYC

The Dutch word for still life is "stilleven" which means arrested life - as if captured in a photograph. And in fact, modern food photography owes a great deal to the techniques pioneered by the Dutch oil painters of the seventeenth century. Those towering bouquets of flowers and exotic fruits were more sumptuous than real life. That same illusion of reality is seen today in the food art of catalogs billboards and magazines. Judith Kampfner reports.

Kampfner: Lisa Homa is a New York food stylist.

Lisa Homa: I created a little puddle of honey which is a beautiful amber color and that has some nice highlights in it.

Kampfner: A smooth oval dollop of honey. A soft light shines through it. Lisa Homa cooks and arranges food for magazine photo shoots and advertisements it looks natural but it's carefully planned. In this photo there's a waterfall of objects.

Lisa Homa: then you have a leaf which is not edible but adds a pretty texture to the plate and then something a little bit taller which is a fig and part of that is cut open which has an allure to it and that draws someone into the photo.

Kampfner: And the eye moves onto the linen cloth on the oak table it's restful and satisfying.

Lisa Homa: In this particular photo we did use a dark background, a charcoal or chocolate colored background. I think that is similar to what you might see in some of the seventeenth century still life painters.

Kampfner: Lisa Homa's images are of food and domestic objects captured in an exaggerated and dramatic way. Displayed against an artificial backdrop. With revelatory lighting picking up different textures. This aesthetic was pioneered by Dutch still life painters from the seventeenth century. The director of The Institute of Fine Arts at NYU Marriet Westermann comes from Holland. As a young child she found it almost impossible to believe that paint could make objects look so convincing. She later learned one device the old masters used was to put opposites together to complement them.

Marriet Westermann: If you look at a Dutch still life painting by William Claez. Heda who tended to gather together wonderful silver vessels and glass and opaque things next to translucent things; soft tablecloths next to hard metal, a lot of attention to sheen - that sort of thing always strikes me as prevalent in your average catalog for Pottery Barn or Williams Sonoma.

Kampfner: The pages of a shiny new house wares catalog can be an engrossing fantasy. Dutch still life paintings were the same. They were aspirational pictures. Even if a middle class householder couldn't afford Chinese bowls, fine goblets and rare fruits, a homeowner could feel he owned what was in his painting if he hung the image on his wall.

Westermann I see the paintings as both about that consumer culture, that new consumer culture where everybody could have new silver and new glassware but also they are themselves new objects of a high luxury end.

Kampfner: Art critics in the Netherlands of the seventeenth century made it clear - still life was on the bottom tier. But if you were an ambitious artist, this work offered opportunities for technical experimentation. And you could earn good money. The young Dutch Republic was prosperous and Protestant. Artists avoided religious subjects and celebrated the secular. Because competition was fierce, painters had niche specializations such as the breakfast table or the flower basket Today, in New York, everyday, food and goods are arranged for sale and there's an artistry - though shopkeepers might not know it.

Westermann: When you see those still lifes in the Union sq green market they are still lifes indeed. The apples have been stacked just so. If the merchant is smart about how he or she puts it out there - the vision has already been informed by still life. When you see a shopping window that looks attractive - these things are designed just as the best still life is of course very carefully designed.

Kampfner: Although the Dutch who came up with the title "Still life" and made it a commercial success, representations of domestic objects have been around since antiquity. A Roman historian described birds pecking at painted grapes on a mural. What the seventeenth century Dutch had which they exploited to the full, was - a type of paint.

Westermann: Oil a wonderful slick medium that you can move around and paint over and build up in many layers and create a sensuous sheen - the softness of a peach, the crumpledness of a piece of a paper . That kind of capacity is really developed in oil paint .it would be wrong to say that was invented in Holland but they ran with it.

Kampfner: In Amsterdam, the treasure house of art is at the Rijksmuseum. Thanks to Radio Netherlands we interviewed their specialist in Dutch still life paintings. His name is Taco Dibberts.

Dibberts: This painting is incredibly complex and has a very fantastic table with pastries and oysters. You have a rough yellow paint which shows the structure of a lemon and then the lemon peel so you know exactly that you are dealing with a lemon and not with an orange or any other fruit. Also the oysters, that was a subject that was painted often - oysters were found in the Netherlands but it's a challenge to paint the watery substance of the oyster.

Kampfner: The humble oyster may have been a local staple but much of the produce depicted was imported.. Dutch exploration of the East and the New World was at its height. Botanists recorded the new plants in microscopic detail .Still life painters adopted some of their scientific curiosity. And liked to show how they could dissect objects. These cut out sections help to make the food enticing.

Dibberts: We see a fig that has busted open with the red meat inside.

Homa:It's much more interesting to show a whole cake with a slice cut out of it and the show the interior and the layers and the texture of the crumb and the the crumbs on the plate.

Dibberts: There are these objects that artist particularly loved. One was the painting of bread which we have her or a pastry broken open and the contents falling out

Kampfner: As a food stylist Lisa Homa arranges her images to awaken the senses - we linger over the photos wistfully..Though modern gourmet ingredients may be very different from the food in the oil paintings, the sensibility and techniques of food photography owe a debt to the past. CuratorTaco Dibberts.

Dibberts: Dutch seventeenth century still lifes have a huge impact on how we perceive food and how we exhibit food and objects in today's photography and advertisements.

Kampfner: In the 1970's and 80's art historians gave philosophical interpretations to Dutch still lifes. Each food had a symbolic meaning. These were celebrations of God's creation or warnings of the transcience of life. The predominant current view is that these were essentially very skillful and beautiful commercial pictures, celebrating domestic upscale life. Less transient but eeffectively the same as a glossy magazine or a stylish catalog today.

For WNYC. I'm Judith Kampfner