Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cornelis de Heem

Still-life with Vegetables, 1658, Cornelis de Heem--good, but not great.
A couple days ago I went on at length regarding the Dutch tradition of the "breakfast still-life." Well, now, it's time for lunch. Just kidding. Shoehorning another Dutch Golden Age "still-lifer," such as Cornelis de Heem, into any such non-existent content category would be silly, at best, and confusing, at worst. My earlier complaint in despair regarding Dutch still-life painters continues to be most valid--there were simply two damned many of them for even the best to stand apart from the crowd. In that regard, one might come to the conclusion that still-life painting must have been one of the easiest arts to master. Technically, especially as practiced by the Dutch during this era, that was definitely not the case. Granted, it may not have taken as much research, planning, and canvas as history painting, nor did it rely on the focused concentration of an apt model as in the case of portraiture. It may not have borne the "on location" demands of landscape painting, yet this more or less "cut and dried" arrangement and rendering of objects and foodstuffs readily at hand did have its own set of distressing problems.

Detail, Still-life with Vegetables (above). It's only when we look at Dutch still-lifes
"up close and personal" that we begin to appreciate subtle differences.
First of all, in painting food, time was of the essence. Left more than a few days, fruit begins to rot. A few more days, flies become a problem. Add another day or two and the wife begins to complain of the smell. Then there's the problem of stray, cats, dogs, rats, mice, and children disturbing the aging arrangement. It's little wonder later still-life painters gravitated toward non-perishable items such as violins, maps, charts, and navigational instruments.

Still Life with Fruit, Flowers, Glasses
and Lobster, 1660s, Jan Davidz
de Heem. Like father like son.
However, in the case of Cornelius de Heem, the original problem with their being such a disturbing number of outstanding artists becomes the main difficulty. There were four generations of de Heem still-life painters, each trained by the previous generation (starting with David de Heem, the Elder, born in 1570) and ending with Cornelius de Heem's son, David Cornelisz de Heem, born in 1663 (below). As if that weren't bad enough, Cornelius de Heem's father, (Jan Davidz de Heem, right) and his uncle (David Davidz de Heem) were still-life painters as were two of his brothers (David de Heem and Jan Janszoon de Heem). As you can see, to add complexity, to confusion, there seems to have been a disturbing lack of creativity when it came to naming children in this family. It's enough to make an art historian's hair turn gray just before falling out.

Still-life with Fruit, David Cornelisz de Heem, the youngest of the clan.
His father taught him well. Luscious, yet barely distinguishable from
the work of his father, uncles, grandfather, or great grandfather.

Still life with Lobster and Nautilus Shell,
Cornelis de Heem.
But that's not all. In the case of this particular family of artists, it wasn't enough that they all had similar names, and painted virtually identical subject matter, with only slight differences in style; it's believed they even went so far as to work on each other's paintings. Moreover, it's not just a matter of who painted what, there is also a disturbing lack of chronological data as to when various works were painted. Add to that a desperate lack of ingenuity when it came to titling their still-lifes. Also, there's little or nothing in the way of self-portraits (or any other kind) to present in differentiating one artist from the other. (There would be too many to display here in any case.) So why, among the plethora of outstanding artists in this family, does Cornelis de Heem stand out? I'm assuming that art critics and historians had, at one time, a good reason for singling him out, but for the life of me, though I've studied and reviewed his work quite closely, I can't see why. 

Festoon with Fruits and Flowers,
Cornelis de Heem. The hanging still-life was
less common than its languishing cousins
and presaged the popularity of 19th-century
"fool the eye" still-life genre.
Although all of the family's work is good, none of it seems particularly better than the rest. In fact, except for their longevity, their family name, and the adequacy of their skills, I can't even see that the members of this family really stood apart from the dozens, perhaps hundreds of other Dutch still-life painters working at the time. All of which serves to underline why still-lifes were held in such low esteem by the Dutch art community of the 17th-century. They were simply a commodity, little different from the foodstuffs they depicted. They were barely considered art. Their subject matter was nothing if not mundane. Their content and its compositional elements were formulaic. Therefore, they were cheap to produce and relatively inexpensive to sell, as much as anything because they were in such tremendous supply. The de Heem family, in effect, ran one of many still-life factories, churning them out by the dozens. Today, we value such works because of their age, their artists' technical skills, their decorative qualities. Most important, however, is the insight they provide into a time and place and lifestyle quite foreign and obscure to our present day existence. Now, what's for lunch.

Vanitas Still-life with Musical Instruments, 1661, Cornelis de Heem. Painted during the final years of his life, the artist began moving away from fruits and vegetable toward the more eternal still-life content.


No comments:

Post a Comment