In the 17th century, Jacob van Oost I was the most prominent painter in Bruges. He spent several years in Italy, where he was heavily influenced by the work of Caravaggio. In the spirit of the Counter Reformation, Van Oost painted numerous altarpieces for Bruges’ churches and monasteries. In addition, he worked as a portrait painter to the bourgeoisie. His son Jacob van Oost II also made his name as a Bruges portraitist and history painter.
Flemish Baroque painting exhibits a pronounced tendency towards specialisation. In the major art centres of Antwerp and Brussels, certain artists turned to monumental history paintings: historical, Biblical or mythological scenes.
Other painters specialised in portraits, landscapes, paintings of everyday scenes – known as genre paintings – or still lifes. Painters became masters of various sub-genres, such as the flower piece, the fruit still life, the animal piece, or the trompe l’oeil still life, into which vanitas symbolism, or symbols of transience, were incorporated.
The various genres were popular with collectors and featured prominently in their art displays and chambers of wonders.
Joannes Fijt was one of the most successful painters of his era, with followers in both the Netherlands and Italy. He made innovative changes to the hunting still life genre by depicting the game in a landscape instead of on a dining table. Fijt is also known for asymmetric and balanced compositions. Animal pelts and the feathers of birds are depicted in an exceptionally refined and tactile manner.
This trompe l’oeil still life seeks to mislead the eye, quite literally. Three dead birds are suspended from two nails within a dark, painted frame. The shadows they cast and the cracks in the plasterwork are masterfully portrayed. Illusory still lifes on vanitas themes were incredibly popular in the 17th century. A painter could showcase his technical skills whilst simultaneously alluding to the transience of life.
It’s so realistic! This probably describes your own reaction when looking at this still life. But this is precisely the point: that we, the viewers, have the impression that we are gazing at real objects. This painting contains three meticulously painted dead birds: a bittern, a small wading bird and a songbird. They are hanging from two nails. Look at the shadows cast by the birds on the pale wall: it makes them appear even more three-dimensional. And notice the cracks in the plaster.
What we see here is known as trompe-l’oeil: the painter is creating a visual illusion. Which means it is anything but real. The genre was extremely popular in the 17th century and Frans van Cuyck de Myerhop was one of its greatest masters.
The 17th century was the century of the still life, a genre that attracted only the most virtuoso of painters. Various different categories emerged, and thanks to the huge demand, painters were able to specialise: there are flower still lifes, breakfasts, still lifes with animals or fruits, opulent table settings, and so on. Still life paintings often contain a hidden moralistic message about the transience of life, as is also the case with this work.
The Antwerp-born Gaspar Peeter Verbruggen II followed in his father’s footsteps as a flower painter. He breathed new life into the floral works produced in Antwerp around 1700 by arranging his Late Baroque, decorative bouquets in an antique urn. This canvas is set in a striking, sculpted, lime wood frame with floral motifs and putti, which is attributed to the Mechelen-based sculptor Laurent van der Meulen.
The North Netherlandish artist Isaac Denies specialised in still lifes with fruit and flowers. In this work, the costly, ripe peaches play a central role. Grapes and walnuts also recur frequently in his paintings, as does a loosely draped tablecloth. In this still life, Denies shows himself to be a master in rendering the reflections on the wine glass, which is radiant against the dark background.
This sumptuous bouquet is composed of flowers that in reality never bloom at the same time. The tulip, which achieved cult-like status in the 17th century, forms the central element. Some of the blooms are already starting to wilt, reminding the viewer of their own mortality. Savery enlivened his bouquets by adding insects, which reinforce the moralistic tone. The snail alludes to decay and the butterflies to the fragility of the human soul.
Jacques d’Arthois belonged to a group of painters in the Brussels area who specialised in wooded landscapes, drawing on the Sonian Forest for inspiration. To suggest depth, the artist made use of an atmospheric perspective with a tripartite colour scheme (brown, green and blue), as well as a winding, sandy path that channels our gaze. On the edge of the woods, we see a series of figures. The decorative nature of this wooded landscape is reminiscent of the tapestries for which d’Arthois painted cartoons.
Van de Venne specialised in monochrome, satirical genre paintings in which he denounced vices. This scene is explained by the proverb on the banderol beneath it: ‘Fools have the most fun’. Human folly is lampooned by a crowd of dancing figures, accompanied by musicians. But above all, by the group led by a man on a donkey. A dead cat has been lashed to its haunches: a typical attribute symbolising folly.