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Still-life paintings in the Royal Collection

An extremely popular format in 16th and 17th century Europe

Still life painting showing a skull, urn, coins and book

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, still-life paintings became an extremely popular art form. These paintings usually depicted inanimate objects, including everyday household items, flowers, fruit and food. At this time the genre took on greater symbolic significance, and the objects came to reflect a person’s pride in everyday life or their learned interest in science and botany. These paintings could also act as memento mori, reminding viewers of the transitory nature of life.

Heda devoted himself to still-life painting and was based at Haarlem throughout his life. Together with Pieter Claesz., he evolved a monochromatic style, portraying - as in the present example - a restricted range of objects: pewter dish, a glass beaker,

Still Life on a Table ©

Still-life painting became particularly prevalent in the United Provinces, now The Netherlands. The Netherlands had gained independence from Spain at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was enjoying a period of prosperity now known as the Dutch Golden Age. During this period, a large and wealthy merchant class emerged, and art became a way to demonstrate their new power and status. However, instead of purchasing mythological, historical or biblical scenes, typically associated with learning and grand collections, they acquired paintings depicting the successful society they were a part of and the everyday possessions that they owned.

The Dutch art market expanded enormously during this period and still-life artists developed particular specialisms to single themselves out from their contemporaries, often depicting the same groups of objects to carve out their niche.  For example, Willem Claesz Heda specialised in depicting half-eaten meals often with a white tablecloth, silver tazza and partially peeled lemon, whilst Melchior Hondecoeter specialised in painting exotic birds in outdoor settings. Tables laden with food and vases of flowers offered artists opportunities to capture varying textures and surfaces, from pewter plates to reflective glass vessels, the rind of a lemon to the filling of a pie.

One of two paintings in the Royal Collection (see also CWLF 64, 405553) which result from a collaboration between Rubens, who did the figures, and Frans Snyders, who did the foodstuffs. In this case Snyders painted the fruit and vegetables first and then

Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism ©

Artists like David Teniers and Willem van Mieris chose to incorporate still-life elements into larger genre scenes, allowing them to demonstrate a range of painterly abilities. Other artists collaborated on paintings, each focusing on their chosen specialism to create a masterpiece that contained both a sumptuous still life as well as perfectly rendered, characterful figures. For example in Pythagorus Advocating Vegetarianism, Franz Snyders painted the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, whilst Peter Paul Rubens painted the figures.  

In this painting by Oosterwyck the glass vase rests on the ledge of a niche. Various kinds of rose are identifiable, as are a carnation, a convolvulus, a ranunculus and a marigold. A bee, a butterfly and a dragonfly have settled on the flowers. A shell is

Still Life with Flowers, Insects and a Shell ©

Although still life became popular on the continent, Britain did not develop a similar tradition in the seventeenth century. However, the genre was popular with royal collectors. Still lives have entered the collection during the reigns of many monarchs including Charles I, Charles II and George IV, although George IV’s preference was for Dutch genre scenes over still-life paintings.

William and Mary, Queen Anne and George III and Queen Charlotte were also fond of still lives, particularly flower paintings. Inventories of Kensington Palace from the reigns of Anne, William and Mary show that a number of flower paintings by artists such as Maria van Oosterwyck, Jean Baptiste Monnoyer and Jacob Bogdani were on display.

Queen Charlotte was a keen botanist. In the 1790s the queen commissioned several flower paintings and a large flower mural from artist Mary Moser to decorate a room at Frogmore House, now known as the ‘Mary Moser Room’. Queen Charlotte and her daughters were keen artists and studied under Margaret Meen and Francis Bauer, who specialised in flower and botanical painting.

Willem van Aelst (Delft 1625/6-Amsterdam after 1683)

Dead Game with Trophies of the Chase

Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten (Haarlem c. 1631-London 1700)

A Vanitas

Willem Claesz. Heda (Haarlem 1593/4-1680/2)

Still Life on a Table

Melchior de Hondecoeter (Utrecht 1636-Amsterdam 1695)

Birds and a Spaniel in a Garden

David Teniers the Younger (Antwerp 1610-Brussels 1690)

The Interior of a Kitchen with an Old Woman Peeling Turnips

Willem van Mieris (Leiden 1662-Leiden 1747)

An old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640) & Frans Snyders (Antwerp 1579 - Antwerp 1657)

Pythagoras Advocating Vegetarianism

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Milan 1571-Port' Ercole 1610)

Boy Peeling Fruit

Jakob Bogdani (c. 1660-1720)

Birds and Fruit in a Landscape

Mary Moser (1744-1819)

A Vase of Flowers

Mary Moser (1744-1819)

A Vase of Flowers