The Dutch are human ants; they spread over all the regions of the earth, gather up everything they find that is scarce, useful, or precious, and carry it back to their storehouses. . . . Wherever one goes in that country, one sees art grappling with nature, and always winning.1

The term "still life" first came into use in the Netherlands in the 17th century.2 The Dutch had an early interest in objects and their potential to hold symbolic meaning, especially moral or spiritual ideas. The still-life tradition may have started when paintings of religious scenes that had included symbolic objects began to be dominated by these items. In the northern provinces, the narrative dropped out of the picture entirely.3

Still lifes evolved significantly over the century. Early-17th-century still lifes were typically focused on extreme naturalistic details and were sometimes commissioned by natural-history collectors, floral breeders, or others with a scientific interest in specimens from the Netherlands or from merchants' trips abroad. The most popular subjects often reflected the burgeoning Dutch identity. Seafood, for instance, was an especially recurring subject because of the Dutch reliance on and proximity to water. Flowers-highly valued in Dutch life generally-were another very fashionable subject, and paintings of them sold at high prices.4

By the 1640s, the growing preference for luxury items began to manifest itself, and compositions overflowed with fruits and expensive decorative objects, including exotic goods obtained from merchants' far-flung travels. Despite these changes, artists did not eliminate objects that could remind viewers of their Protestant faith. No matter how wealthy the Dutch became through trade and business, they wanted to maintain a proper balance between worldly and spiritual concerns.5 Still lifes that symbolized life's brevity were called vanitas. The appearance of this type of painting coincided with the end of the truce the United Provinces had struck with Spain and with the ravages of the plague.6 The fear of revived warfare and illness may have inspired the symbols of the vanitas: the watch, skull, smoking oil lamp, overturned empty glass, and a dangling lemon peel, among others.

The breakfast piece was a type of still life in which objects were presented as food rather than ornament or natural specimen. These paintings often included utensils or partly eaten food and appear to depict informal meals.7 Jacob van Es (1596—1666) was known for painting such pieces. His Still Life with Fish on a Kitchen Table (ca. 1635—40) depicts seafood, mainly fish, in various positions across a table. The composition, which is over two meters long, does not emphasize all objects equally but arranges them in strong diagonals in which they overlap, are strung up, chopped in half, and hang over the table to accentuate the illusion of depth. Forced to peer into the eyes of the newly dead fish, one is reminded of the brevity of life.

1Denis Diderot, in his account of a 1772 trip to Holland ("Voyage en Hollande," Supplément aux Œuvres de Diderot, 1818) quoted in Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century.(Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1983),  p. 111.
2Madlyn Millner Karhr, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century.2nd ed.(New York:Icon Editions, 1993), p. 189.
3Ibid., p. 190.
4Ibid., p. 191.
5Ibid., p. 198.
6Ibid., p. 196.
7Ibid., p. 194.

  • Share with students that a special form of painting called the still life developed in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The still life is a painting of objects that are not capable of movement from fruits and flowers to exotic bowls. As a class, explore the reasons why someone might want to paint or own a painting of objects. Ask students what objects they might be interested in painting or owning a painting of.
  • Look together at Still Life with Fish on a Kitchen Table (ca. 1635-40). Ask students to try to catalogue the objects as if they were merchants keeping track of inventory. How many are there? Of what sizes and types? Now ask which objects are most prominent. How did the artist make them seem important (through light, placement, or position)? Also ask them to think about which strike them as the most emotionally evocative. What emotions do they elicit?
  • Some Dutch still-life painters specialized in the type of still life called “breakfast pieces,” in which the focus was on objects that would be consumed at an informal meal. Van Es was one of those artists. Often his paintings depicted cheese, fruit, and exotic tableware. These fish will soon be part of a meal, but they are almost surely depicted in part for their symbolism. Ask students to think about what fish could be mean religiously, geographically, economically, spiritually, and socially. Students may want to briefly research the new Dutch republic’s geography, economics, and religion in order to address this question.
  • Tell students that still-life artists often included objects that represented the brevity of life on earth, an important concept for their religion. In what ways did van Es communicate this notion?

Make Your Own Breakfast Piece

  • Ask students: What can breakfast communicate about you, your family, country, and era? Dutch paintings of informal meals conveyed information about their geography, trade routes, social status, and religion. Look at other breakfast pieces in order to think about how painters’ arrangements and symbolism helped them express more meaning than meets the eye. You can find good examples on the Louvre Museum ‘s Web site. You may also want to look at modern still lifes, such as Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #30 (1963) at Moma .
  • For this project, students should first think about what they might want to convey about themselves, their family, country, or era and how food can express these ideas. They should then select objects for this purpose. They will have to think about tableware, brands, and quantity. They will also need to consider composition. What objects do they want to emphasize? These objects should go in the foreground and be more fully lit. If they want to express pride in their national food, for instance, they might depict local specialties in the foreground and in the light, but imported brands like Coca-Cola in the background and in shadow.
  • Students can create this project as a painting. They should set up the objects they want to depict and experiment with various directional light sources to create contrast. If technology is available, they may want to create a collage using Photoshop or a similar program that incorporates images they find on the Internet or scan into the computer.

Symbolism of Objects

  • An important category of still life was the vanitas, in which artists painted symbols of the brevity of life. A watch, skull, a fallen petal, and even an overturned empty glass, could be understood to represent the fleeting nature of the material world. Dutch painters used the objects of their time; challenge your students to create a contemporary vanitas through a painting, drawing, photograph, or even a sculpture.