Although Clara Peeters is recognized as one of the founders of still life painting, nearly nothing is known about her life, teachers, or patrons. Equally remarkable, the Prado Museum, nearly 200 years old, is holding its first solo exhibition of a female painter. Introducing Clara Peeters.
She was born in the Netherlands around 1588-1590, and was most active from 1611-1612. A contemporary of famous painters like Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and van Dyck, Peeters was a dedicated still life painter committed to depicting the true appearance of objects.
This distinguishes her on two fronts:
- when she began working in still life painting in the early 17th century, there were but a few works of this genre held in collections in Southern Netherlands; and
- her pursuit of realism was in contrast to the idealism that was typical of Renaissance paintings.
There are just 40 known paintings by Peeters, of which 30 are signed. As noted by art historian Maria Cruz de Carlos, the collection at the Prado includes over 5,000 male artists and 21 female artists, with many works labeled “anonymous”. Some of these anonymous works are likely to be by women, who were seldom encouraged to pursue art.
We can only hope that in time, more works as stunning as these will be attributed to Peeters, one of the few women artists in early modern Europe.
Still Life with Raisins (or Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblet, Dried Fruits, Sweets, Bread Sticks, Biscuits, Wine and a Pewter Flagon)
With such a dearth of biographical information, the objects in her paintings offer clues about her life and the lives of her clients. Here, the precious objects are those typically associated with prosperity, education, and culture, including items like seashells, silver-gilt goblets and cups, silver salt cellars, and glittering gold coins. Her success is also suggested by inclusion of her artwork in collections in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Madrid, a rarity for female artists.
Still Life with Raisins creates a remarkable sense of three dimensional space and realism. Her use of tenebrism (in a tenebrist painting, most objects or figures are in shadow while some are illuminated dramatically) reminds us that tenebrists, especially Caravaggio, deeply influenced Baroque artists.
This composition breaks with typical still life paintings by ignoring the compositional symmetry typical of the time. The artist, dressed in a headdress, ruff and high dress, captured her self-portrait in the reflections on the silver-gilt goblet and the pewter jug. Concurrently, Still Life with Raisins retains other commonly seen elements of this genre: repetition of objects that seem almost casually strewn on a table.
Still Life with Flowers and Goblets (or Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins and Shells)
Peeters included her self portrait, reflected on various shiny surfaces, in eight of her paintings (six of these are included in the Prado exhibition).
In Still Life with Flowers, Gilt Goblets, Coins and Shells, there are at least six self portraits on the goblet on the right; she is grasping her brushes and palette and portraying herself as a committed, serious painter.
In the context of her time, this stance is understandable and bold: she was working in an art world run by all-male art guilds. Curiously, at least six of the panels she painted upon have marks on them indicating they were prepared in the Antwerp painter’s guild, where she was not a registered member.
Again here, the items painted here are exotic, pricey objects that would have been displayed in “cabinets of curiosity” of 17th century wealthy citizens.
Still Life with Fish, Candle, Artichokes, Crabs and Prawns
This remarkably executed work is considered one of Clara Peeters’ finest paintings. As noted by Alejandro Vergara, the art exhibition’s curator and the Prado’s Chief Curator of Flemish and Northern School Painting:
“The rhythmic contrast between rounded and jagged shapes (as in the colander and the artichoke) and between patterns (in the surface decoration of the stoneware jug and the scales of the fish and holes of the colander) is characteristic of her art.” 1/
On the lid of the stonewear jug, there is another self-portrait; here, the artist wears a large headpiece. The previously burned but unlit candle is likely a vanitas theme about the unavoidable passage of time.
And then there are the artichokes. This vegetable, a rarity until the second half of the 16th century, was regarded as an aphrodisiac. They appeared in several other Peeters’ paintings as well as in works by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Still Life with Fish, Candle, Artichokes, Crabs and Prawns is also the earliest known fish still life painting, and may perhaps be the earliest ever painted. Roughly one-quarter of her existing works are fish still life paintings, leading to the hypothesis that she became somewhat of a specialist.
True or not, Peeters was indisputably an innovator.
1/ Vergara, Alejandro (ed.), El Arte de Clara Peeters, Madrid y Amberes, Museo Nacional del Prado, Koniklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2016, pp. 96.
Interested in learning about other female artists who defied the odds and became famous painters? Read about Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi, contemporaries of Peeters, and explore this brief survey of female artists.
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