food in the arts





The story of still-life painting started in Ancient Greece when Zeuxis painted raisins which were so realistically reproduced that birds would try to pilfer them.

The art of creating illusion was also much admired during the 14th Century, notably in Italy where several mural deception paintings were produced and during the 15th Century when Flemish masters Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin introduced still-lives in their paintings. However, still-life painting began in earnest at the start of the 16th Century. 

The term "still-life" only appeared during the middle of the 17th Century. Before 1650, people spoke of fruit, banquet or luncheon paintings. It is evident these works were much appreciated as Dutch artist Ambrosius Bosschaert received 1000 guilders for a painting of flowers whereas the price of a portrait in Holland around 1625 was fixed at about 60 guilders.


From then on, the representation of flowers, dead animals or objects became more symbolic as each thing had a religious meaning according to the Bible. For example, still-lifes with raisins, apples or pears represented the blood of Christ, His love for the Church or the softness of His transformation into Man while a lobster represented His resurrection. 

There were also emblems and hidden religious and political symbols in these paintings. The religious fracture between Catholics and Protestants – between the South and the North – induced many painters to become more allusive in their works. In addition, these paintings contained hidden proverbs or were destined to certain circles. 

Fish still-lives were mainly produced in the Hague which had an important market, breakfast still-lives were a speciality in Haarlem while flowers were more in demand in Utrecht. Nevertheless, these paintings also reflected a change in mentality and thinking. 

Deep economic changes occurred at the end of the 16th Century in Holland and the Flanders which were under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty. With the development of overseas trade, traditional agriculture receded while the development of markets became spectacular.

Dutch and Flemish people became more accustomed to buying fruits and other foods and because of the new opulence, painters had a new approach towards their fetishism. Religious symbols thus became less important while wealth became the target of hidden criticisms. 

In Holland notably, the trend was to oppose the traders and the peasants, the former representing economic prosperity and the latter the old world. However, religious meanings were still underlined such as in the representation of meat which could indicate a threat to faith, weak flesh or the ritual sacrifice of an animal. 

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Dutch Still Life –

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