A Hidden Marriage

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Among the works in the present Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder collection is a still life by Clara Peeters depicting a Venetian glass, a rummer and a burning candle. The painting, dated 1607, is the earliest recorded work of this rarely-found female artist. A closer inspection reveals some exceptional artistic qualities in addition to a deeper meaning of what appears to be an everyday subject.

Peeters was one of the first artists to specialize in still lifes. Clearly she played an significant part in the beginnings and development of this genre in the Netherlands. Many Flemish, Dutch and even German painters were inspired by her floral still lifes, breakfast pieces and her fish and hunting scenes. Unfortunately, little is known about the artist herself. The few surviving historical documents offer no conclusive evidence about when and where she was born, under whom she trained, which artists inspired her or with whom she maintained contact.

Oeuvre

In sharp contrast with the silence of the archives is the oeuvre of Clara Peeters in which she emerges as a prominent and respected artist. Some of her works quickly found their way into royal collections, while the precious objects in her still lifes testify to the refined taste of her clientele. Moreover, many of her paintings were executed in the kind of large format which in those days indicated that they would have sold for higher than average prices. Clara Peeters frequently added her own portrait in the form of a reflection in one of the objects in her work: she was obviously aware of her own artistic skill. As far as we know the artist only painted still lifes. So far thirty-one works signed by her have come to light. She sometimes wrote her name in full, but usually she signed her paintings Clara P. or simply CP. This interlaced monogram later lead to some confusion, as the Dutch still-life painter Pieter Claesz (1597/87-1661) signed his paintings in the same way. Clara Peeters' work shows many resemblances to that of other Flemish still-life painters, such as Osias Beert, Jacob van Hulsdonck and Jacob van Es. And it is in this area where we should look for her as yet unidentified teacher.

Still Life with a Venetian Glass, a Rummer and a Burning Candle

Dating from 1607, this delightful still life is the earliest known work by Clara Peeters. It was executed along early traditional lines. The painter chose a high vantage point, so that the viewer looks down on the objects. In the early seven- teenth century this was also the perspective chosen by other Northern Netherlandish painters such as Floris van Schooten (died after 1655) and Floris van Dijck (1575-1651). The focal point of the painting is formed by a large pewter plate. It holds various sweetmeats and a Venetian glass filled with red wine. Resting on the rim is a sprig of rosemary hung with tiny ornaments. Behind the pewter plate is a green wine glass (a Berkemeier), while a fly painted with utmost care for detail, crawls across the table. The picture is completed by a candlestick holding a burning candle in the right foreground and by a beautiful golden ring lying next to it.

Texture

Typical of the early work of Clara Peeters are the limited number of objects on her paintings, the high viewpoint and the signature on the narrow vertical edge of the table. The quality of the painting is astonishing. Especially convincing is the representation of various materials. In this early painting the artist already demonstrates one of her strengths: the rendering of reflections on glass and metal objects. She also excelled in combining different painting techniques, varying from the careful application of transparent layers of paint (here visible in the fly and the candlestick) to a more impasto method shown in the candle flame and in the reflections of the red wine. This early work from 1607 clearly betrays the influence of Osias Beert, which might suggest that Peeters had studied with him. Not only does she use the same compositional scheme and loose style of painting, she also applies similar motifs, such as the sweetmeats and the lighted candle. Yet Peeters shows her independent spirit by arranging the objects in an untraditional way, asymmetrical and overlapping.

Hidden message

In still-life paintings of the early seventeenth century everyday objects often contained a deeper meaning; for the twentieth-century viewer how- ever the hidden meaning is not always evident. Attempts to reveal the eoncealed message of still lifes can lead to unexpected results. In the painting discussed here the burning candle, the fly and the ornaments have been interpreted as references to the transience of all earthly things. The candle would symbolize the passage of time" the fly stood for death and the ornaments for earthly riches which are worthless after death. According to this interpretation the painting is warning for people not to strive after the materi and the temporary, but to prepare themselves for life after death. In this context the glass of wine and the shape of the cross in which the confectionary is arranged refer to Christ's example: he shed his blood on the cross to redeem the sins of mankind. Finally, the sprig of rosemary can be seen as a symbol of eternity. The leaves of this herb retain their fragrance for a long time and the plant was also used as a medicine against amnesia.

Hidden marriage

Recently Miriam Milman has suggested that this still life by Clara Peeters is no sombre vision of life but actually refers to a happy occasion, a wedding. The key to this more plausible explanation lies in the golden jewellery hanging from the sprig of rosemary. These precious jewels, in the shape of a stylized strawberry, were used at seventeenth-century weddings to decorate the bridal table and were presented as a gift to the bride. The strawberry, because of the many seeds contained in a single fruit, was a traditional symbol of fertility and thus of marriage. In an Italian list of wedding jewels of 1295 fifteen fragulae de auro (golden strawberries) are mentioned. The other objects in this painting are also connected with marriage. The rosemary twig vas symbol of (marital) fidelity and the ring is a typical wedding ring. The confectionary on the plate would often be served at weddings and one of the biscuits is appropriately in the shape of a heart. The delicate Venetian glass standing beside more robust Berkemeier might symbolize husband and wife.
The interpretation of the picture as a reference to marriage is reinforced bv another still life by Clara Peeters in which a similar sprig of rosemary with golden strawberries is placed in a wedding cake. Paintings by contemporary Flernish artists alsoshow this type of jewellery and rosemary in connection with marriage symbols.

Hidden signature

Apart from signing her name, the artist also integrated several other references to herself into this still life. Upon closer inspection the reflection of her face can be detected in the foot of the candfestick, while the biscuit in the form of the letter P may refer to her surnarne.

This Still life with a Venetian Glass, a Rummer and a Burning Candle offers an illuminating insig into the marriage symbolism of the Golden Age. With this exquisite painting Clara Peeters reveals herself to be a pioneer in the genre of still-life painting.

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