Monday, 3 November 2014

Life Stills

Firstly, thank you so very much for all your kind knitting encouragement comments on my last post - I haven't given up on the knit-sticks and, in fact, I've been picking them up more often than a crochet hook over the past fortnight. Partly because I am knitting dish-cloths for a local charity project and partly because my short-wooden-handled, round knitting needles are air-travel-friendly and I have been away. H has been In Italy on a school classics trip and I have snatched a few days in Holland where I've never been but have always wanted to go because it's home to some of the best still life paintings in the world. Dutch painting in the 17th C is a virtuoso affair on many fronts - Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Rubens etc. but the still life genre is my all-time favourite and The Netherlands are still home to many of the best works of the best artists - Pieter de Hooch, Johannes Vermeer, Adriaan Coorte, Jan De Heem, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Van Huysum, Clara Peeters, Willem Claesz etc. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, and I am sure other museums too, hold still life treasures in almost every room. Fabulous. As in FaBuLouS!

There is a poignancy about many 17th C still lifes. Many are painted of intentionally ephemeral objects - flowers, fruit, bread, even discarded book covers and broken, old musical instrument cases. Short-lived butterflies, moths or other insects hover among the bright petals of a pink rose...

Detail of "Vaas met bloemen" by Jan Davidsz. De Heem c1670
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
... or rest momentarily on the bloomy skin of a peach at the peak of ripeness.

"Vruchten" by Jan van Huysum 1682-1749
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
Translucent grapes, red currants or gooseberries, taut with juice, tantalise us; perfect opportunities to demonstrate the virtuosity of the painter and a reminder that perfection does not last - tomorrow, perhaps even later today, these fruits will be past their best and beginning to go over. 

You may well encounter other, more overt references to the inexorable passing of time in these paintings - the stark, unwelcome ugliness of a skull or an exquisitely complicated pocket-watch, open to reveal its intricate mechanism, housed in a gold case. 

"Bloemstilleven met horloge" by Willem van Aelst 1663
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
You do not need to see the watch-face, half-hidden in the folds of blue, silk ribbon from which the wearer suspended the piece in his pocket, to know what time it is telling. The painted mechanism is soundless in all its detail and yet ticks loudly across the silence of the intervening centuries. Now is what we have. Make the most of it. As Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher put it, "Everything is in flux." "Nothing stands still." Life doesn't; we don't.

As I get older, I find this harder to accommodate - there are lots of ways I would like time not to move on but to stand quite still, so although I love these paintings almost more than any other genre of art, I find some of them quite emotionally disturbing.

The genre was all the rage in Holland in the 17th C and provided artists with perfect canvases (forgive the pun!) to showcase their ability to paint intricate objects and, above all, to paint light - light reflected off a polished, metal dish or caressing a chased, silver cup; light lingering on a scratched and worn pewter plate or dancing in the depths of a wine-glass, half filled with pale, white wine; light playing in the water around the stalks of flowers in a blue glass vase or catching the raised swirls on the belly of a slender-spouted, glass jug; light bouncing from the bobbles that decorate the wide stems of many 17th C wine glasses. 

"Stillleven met verguide bokaal" by Willem Claesz 1635
(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Many of these paintings feature expensive objects - elaborate silver or pewter-ware, perilously thin, gilded glasses and jugs, fine table linen - beautiful things making beautiful paintings. My favourite paintings of all are those that are slightly less grand. Look at this painting of bread and cheeses by Clara Peeters, for example, with figs, dates and almonds in a Delft-ware dish. Although the slender-stemmed, glass goblet is expensively fine, the glazed, pottery wine-jug and blue and white dish that rest on the table, whose edge is badly chipped, are more homely. I especially love the way the rough-hewn cuts in the cheese are painted and the marks on the bread roll where it has been separated from the batch in which it was baked. These things too, are poignant - the simple meal is immortalised here in Clara Peeter's outstanding brushwork and through her perceptive eyes but the eater - where is he or she? Who was he or she? Clara Peeters herself - where and who is she? Women painters were highly unusual in the 17th C - I found myself intrigued by how she came to paint at all, let alone masterpieces like this and wondering what her life might have been like, as well as dearly wishing to lift one of those shavings of cheese off the plate and taste it, along with one of the dried figs or dates or a milky almond.

"Stillleven met kazen, amandelen en krakelingen" by Clara Peeters c1615
(Mauritshuis, Den Haag)
And alongside that wish, is the wish to look at what is not painted, but real, and to taste that too in the way that one might savour the crystalline sharpness of a sliver of mature cheese or the stickiness of a few dried dates. Now is what we have. I must make the most of it.

Anyway, deeper reflection aside, if you've never been to Amsterdam, I recommend it - go and steep yourself in art - the Van Gogh Museum as well as the Rijksmuseum; take a train from "Amsterdam Centraal" to Den Haag to visit the Mauritshuis; and in between, wander beside the "grachten" (canals) in the autumn sunlight; 

travel on a tram (very user-friendly, even for nervous bus-users like Mrs T) ...

... or may be hire a bicycle and join the Amsterdamers who all seem to travel on two wheels for preference.

Enjoy the characterful canal houses and the enchanting little plaques which originally identified each house in a street, in the way that today we use numbers or names.

Sample the local speciality of "jenever" a distilled spirit that is a bit like gin, flavoured (as gin is) with juniper and other aromatics but with a character all its own.

I don't drink spirits much, especially neat, but visiting the ancient distillery "Wynand Fockink" established in 1679 in the heart of Amsterdam is an experience all its own. Go easy on the "Oude Jenever" (Old Jenever) even if just tasting a tiny amount - it's nearly 50% proof!

Have a wander through "de negen straatjes" - "the nine streets" - that criss-cross the three main canals running parallel to the Singel, for delightful shopping and eating - Dutch baking is full of the heritage of the Dutch East India Company - think cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cocoa - and the Dutch make soup and sourdough bread to die for as well as fabulous chocolate.

And as a souvenir, buy yourself a bunch of painted wooden tulips to cheer up dark autumn days back home - not as beautiful as real tulips, of course, but less ephemeral and that just now suits me wanting to still life down a bit.

Along with my wooden tulips, I am savouring life's still moments, as and when they offer themselves, with my new little porcelain Amsterdam canal house. It houses a nightlight and shines comfortingly and unblinkingly from its tiny windows in the autumn gloaming, while I take time out to sip Dutch-style  peppermint tea, brewed with fresh leaves in a glass - you get it like this everywhere in Holland it seems, even at airport cafés, which is pretty civilised, I think. Not  a "still life" in the way that the beautiful paintings I've talked about above are, but life stilled just for a moment with echoes of wanting to appreciate something of the same beauty inherent in transient, domestic things, however fleetingly.

Wishing you too some still moments in life's flux and flow
E x


  1. et bien quel voyage ! merci de partager cette expérience enrichissante avec nous autres ! je ne suis jamais allée à Amsterdam mais c'est un projet ! tout le monde dit que c'est une ville sympa et surtout riche en culture. Bonne soirée !

  2. They are amazing paintings. Your tulips are very pretty too and a great reminder of your travels. xx

  3. Sounds like you had a great time, they are truly amazing paintings. I love Holland and have a trip planned for April next year to see the tulips.

  4. How I wish I could have joined you! Holland was always at the top of my 'must go to' list when I lived in the UK but sadly, I never got there. It's the type of place that I know once I arrived, I would never have wanted to leave so perhaps it's best I never managed a trip! Your wooden tulips are gorgeous and your "still life" is so calming and soothing..... x

  5. ps It sounds like you're the same as me and are more interested in the social history of a painting than the art itself. I always ask "who" and "why" when I look at art which is (I suppose) what the artist intended. xxx

  6. Those paintings are wonderful and it sounds like you had a great trip to Amsterdam. The painted tulips are really beautiful and a lovely reminder of your holiday.

  7. Such an interesting and beautifully written post. I visited Amsterdam a couple of years ago and stayed in an apartment overlooking a canal, there is lots to see there. Wishing I'd bought some wooden tulips now, they look lovely!

  8. Why are paintings reminding us of the transient nature of things and the passing of time emotionally upsetting? Thank goodness we grow older, we get old and we die, the alternative is a tiresome one. Everything has a natural life, a time for living and then rightfully a time to die. When people are old, they get tired and are often pleased to go. I have been with several old people near the time of death. They do indeed go gentle into that good night, they didn't fight against it at all. To do otherwise, to rage against the dying of the light would have caused them pain and suffering. They were excepting and ready to go; it was not sad as they had lives beautifully lived and they fulfilled them. Beauty is ours throughout our life, not only at certain times of it. Old age, middle age is beauty. If you see only beauty in the 'perfection' of youth then you don't see it at all.

    When we die, perhaps it is the end completely, a full stop, which is fine as we will have finished what we are here to do. Maybe we live on anyway, because our ashes feed the rest of nature which still lives and so then do we in a sense. Or perhaps we move on to nobody knows where, a place that might be paradise, or perhaps an adventure. It may be that it is unexpected but then so is life and we manage that. I have no bad thoughts or cares about death, it is the right order of things.

  9. I have visited Amsterdam twice a few years ago when my niece was living there, it is a magical place. So beautiful everywhere you turn. The Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum are fascinating.
    Hugs and glad you had a wonderful trip,

  10. Hello! I'm planning a trip there next year. Where did you stay? Was it somewhere you'd recommend? Lovely pictures and photos btw. Rebecca

  11. Good morning Elizabeth, I haven't been to blogland for a couple of weeks due to several illnesses but now I try to catch up a little. What a wonderful trip to the Netherlands this was! I often go there but I have never been to Amsterdam! Seeing your pictures it reminds me that I always wanted to go there. Especially to visit the museums. Your pictures of the old Dutch paintings are gorgeous. Thanks a lot for sharing. I hope that you will find still moments ebery day, especially now, the Advent season calls for still moments. Have a beautiful week, Viola


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.