A peek into Dutch still life

Still life is one of my favourite genres of painting, and no one did it better than the Dutch! I do plan to do a deeper dive into the subject, but here’s a brief overview that I wrote as part of a university assignment, where I had to pick a painting at the local gallery and write a little blurb that was supposed to serve as it’s gallery description. It was supposed to only be 500 words, which was basically mission impossible – how to condense the history of Dutch still art into less than 500 words?!? As well as squeezing in a quick visual analysis – these professors were stricter than Twitter. Anyway, here’s my attempt, in all it’s academic jargon.


J Bourjinon Still Life with Fruit and Shellfish
J Bourjinon
Still Life with Fruit and Shellfish
1657. Oil on Canvas. 433mm x 1371mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

The still life genre is defined as the depiction of objects that lack the capacity for self-governed motion. The Dutch stilleven came into popularity alongside the country’s growing economic prosperity in the late 16th Century, as artists took delight in painting ‘national life’ and the everyday things which were a part of the growing richness and standard of living. During the 17th Century it was one of the most admired forms of painting due to both subject and technique.

While the quattrocento Italian tradition of trompe l’oeil, which intended to literally deceive the viewer’s eye, certainly plays some part in the depiction of these foodstuffs, but Netherlandish paintings had also begun to include still life in their religious paintings during the same time. Often it was as ‘disguised symbolism’, wherein certain aspects which appear to be ordinary parts of the setting in fact carry a symbolic meaning.

In the Reformed 17th Century, as religious paintings suffered at the hands of the iconoclasts, artists had to separate symbols from scene altogether and give them their own life. Despite the fact that artists lacked commissions from churches, there was no shortage of private sales due to the economic boom. However, citizens had to reconcile their delight at their sudden prosperity with their religious piety and the dangers of materiality.

This piece, acquired by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from an anonymous donor in 1954, is attributed to J Bourjinon, a relatively unknown artist thought to be active in Amsterdam from 1660-1700. Recent historians have theorised that the lack of information on this artist may be due to the fact that J Bourjinon was a female. It is only with the recent feminist movements that historical women artists have begun to be thoroughly recognised, and records are sparse on this particular person.

Another still life attributed to Bourjinon shares many features of this one, such as fruit and most importantly, withered and spoiling leaves – these memento mori are usually included as a reminder of the danger of indulgence, and the transience of material goods and life itself.

This piece is keeping in Dutch tradition of the latter half of the 17th Century with a rich display – earlier still life was relatively modest, but a taste for luxury and aristocratic strivings were not too encumbered by Calvinist practices. The people wanted to celebrate their national blessings, and these works were commonly found in private interiors.

Each piece of fruit has been carefully crafted and the intense individualisation painted with a delicate hand, accentuated by the large size of the canvas. Bourjinon has exercised skill in the portrayal of light upon the fruit and the fancy drapery, some of which project over the bench, a common illusionistic device to bring the image into ‘our space’. Dramatic chiaroscuro and the sweeping spread are associated with the baroque style, with visual enticement and anticipation taking the fore.

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