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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Pieter Claesz

Still-Life, Skull, and Writing Quill, 1628, Pieter Claesz
Every artist, writer, perhaps all of us, as we grow older, begin to contemplate the brevity of life. We use such phrases as "My, how times flies," or "I ain't as young as I used to be," or my personal favorite, "I'm older than I look," to hide our feelings, but still they linger, bubbling to the surface whenever we encounter a close brush with death. Over the years I've had two or three such incidents, one quite recently when, while vacationing in the Dominican Republic at a remote beach, resort. I almost drowned. I overestimated my lung power and underestimated the power of the surf. I ended up suffering the embarrassment of being taken back to our cruise ship in an ambulance. I don't know if I came closer to drowning or having a fatal heart attack, but for sure, it served as a wake-up call to the fact I'm no longer "the man I used to be." Claesz's 1628 Still-life, skull, and Writing Quill (above) strikes me as appropriate in my case.

Vanitas Still Life, 1625, Pieter Claesz.
How many symbols of death can you spot?
Though I've never delved into the subject before to any great length, at various times, I have dealt with a number of painters, usually Dutch, and usually from that country's 17th-century "Golden Age," who could be best categorized as "vanitas" painters. These have included artists from this era such as Maria Oosterwijck, David Bailly, the Spaniard, Juan de Valdes Leal, and a few others. They all vary to some degree in their approach, but all have in common a fascination with highly detailed still-lifes bearing highly detailed symbols of death. In some case, this fascination would go so far as to be deemed a preoccupation, perhaps even an obsession with the subject. One such painter was Pieter Claesz. I doubt that any other painter in the history of art has ever painted so many skulls.

Breakfast Still Life with Roemer, Meat Pie, Lemon, and Bread,
1640, Pieter Claesz
Pieter Claesz was born in Berchem, Belgium, near Antwerp around 1597. He joined the Guild of St. Luke in 1620, also the year he moved to Haarlem where his son, the landscape painter, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, was born. Claesz and Willem Claeszoon Heda, who also worked in Haarlem, were the most important exponents of the "ontbijt" or dinner piece (not to be confused with the somewhat more well-known Dutch breakfast pieces, above). They painted with subdued, fairly monochromatic palettes, employing a subtle handling of light and texture as their prime means of expression. Claesz generally chose more homely objects than did Heda, although his later work became more colorful and decorative. Claesz's still-lifes often suggest allegorical purposes, with skulls, short candles, spilled ink, etc. serving as reminders of human mortality. Between them, the two men founded a distinguished tradition of still life painting in Haarlem. By the way, it's awfully easy to confuse the work of these two artists, not just because of their similarities in color and style, but taking into account their names as well. I just made a correction to an earlier posting where I had them confused.

There's no indication as to whether either of these
images are self-portraits, but, in a manner of speaking,
the reflection in glass ball still-life (below) certainly is.
According to the records of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke, Pieter Claesz tried to teach, his fourteen-year-old son, Nicolaes Berchem, to follow in his footsteps. But young Nicolaes appears to have preferred landscapes to rigors of still-life painting. Or perhaps, he simply disliked skulls. In any case, later, after a trip abroad, the boy turned his talent to music. However, Claesz had, in addition to his son, the pupils Evert van Aelst, Floris van Dyck, Christian Berentz, Floris van Schooten, and Jan Jansz Treck. Pieter Claesz came face to face with the brevity of life when he died in 1660 at the age of sixty-three.

Self-portrait from Vanitas Still Life with Violin and Glass Ball,
Pieter Claesz, 1628,

Still Life with Musical Instruments, 1623, Pieter Claesz
Copyright, Jim Lane
It's About Time, 1986, Jim Lane, the closest I've
ever come to a vanitas still-life.

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