Pieter Claesz painter & still life paintings

22nd March 2020

Vanitas of the 17th century

I love symbolic painting. I have spent much time in galleries drawing from the canvases and researching the symbolic meaning. This concept was first introduced to me, not in the brick and mortar art colleges that I went to but the contextual study courses I went on with the OCA tutor Richard Liley in the London galleries.

A vanita is a still-life 17th century Dutch painting. These paintings contain symbolistic objects and themes about earthly possessions and wealth, time and death. The objects that are often found in these paintings range from fruit, foods and flowers, skulls and bones, clocks and musical instruments, books, lamps, candles etc… These objects would hold meaning and even the type of fruits of flowers used would hold another meaning. To me these dutch paintings are like a game where you are looking for clues and symbols and then this reading of hidden messages becomes a story of the painting.

As this genre developed the still life became the entire subject of paintings and the people of the day would have been able to acknowledge and relate to the hidden meanings within the artworks.

Claesz’s works are full of symbolism and are constructed with the muted browns and dark greys which in their self also give a sense of darkness and death because of the lack of dynamic light and colour within the compositions

Vanitas Still Life with the ‘Spirano’

If we look at the above painting, Vanitas Still Life with the ‘Spirano’ for example we can see objects such as the skull and bones which symbolise death. Next to the skull there is an empty glass which is representing the fact that life is slowly ebbing away, as the wine is drunk and receding within the glass towards empty so in comparison our lives slowly ebb away until finally there is nothing left and time for us has stopped. If we look on the table next to and in front of the bones is a pocket watch again the symbolism of time is obvious as is the smouldering lamps presence.

Other objects frequently found in paintings to symbolise this concept are candles that are melting down to nothing, oil lamps whose smoke eventually fades to nothing and sand timers.

Close up of the glass, skull and bones, smouldering lamp and the watch -TIME

Musical instruments symbolise the fleeting sound of a melody that comes to an end quickly. Within this painting the instruments violin, lute and flute can be found.

Musical instruments

This still life also tells us something about the artist’s trade – specifically its various stages of training. Apprentices first learned to mix pigments, before going on to sketch copies and to make drawings of three-dimensional sculptures. These stages are shown here.

Patrick De Rynck (2004), How To Read a Painting. London, Thames & Hudson. pgs 266-67
Artists tools and mediums

The empty chair, where has the artists gone? The ultimate symbol of nothingness, an empty chair representing the passing of someone they have gone from the comfort of their chair into non-existence.

The artists chair – empty

This has been really great re-visiting painting as a genre. I actually miss my artistic side which at the moment is locked away inside with one of my other alters. For anyone who knows anything about dissociative identity disorder we split into different alters so that we can cope with what is happening around us. My artistic self was working on some domestic violence pieces and was producing loads then all of a sudden she stopped and has disappeared. This is so frustrating but I am using my photography to acknowledge the abuse side of me for now although the emphasise within the work is different.

I have been able to look at Letinsky’s work and thought about the mixing of the two genres further. Much can be done and it will be quite exciting taking this project forwards as this section in the OCA folder actually has more artistic skills being drawn out of us. Therefore I am strongly hoping this may encourage the artist me back out again.


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