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“PRONKSTILLEVEN”: PRIORITIZING VISUAL EXERCISE IN A WORLD OF VANITAS

Written by Tiffany Dai

Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie

In the mercantilist and early capitalist socio-economic climate of the Dutch Republic,[i] the still life genre emerged as a repository for a dense iconography of moralistic sentiments that appeared in response to the seventeenth-century visual and material culture of commodity. For pronkstilleven or “luxury still life” paintings,[ii] a sub-genre of still life that exhibits the magnificence and achievements of Dutch international trade and collection, the historical narrative of a commodity- and collection-driven seventeenth-century Dutch Republic imbued the imagery with moralistic messages of the consequences of overconsumption. The pronk still life, which depicts abundant, indulgent banquet scenes of food and luxury goods, is evidently related to the transience of vanitas imagery and its visual contrast between wealth and death. Vanitas can be all-consuming in its iconography, as it assimilates the inanimate objects of Dutch still life paintings into its narrative of mortality and brevity, giving them new significance. In addition to the socio-economic significance and moralistic function of materials and commodities in most seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings, the visual density and material abundance in pronk still lifes indicate a sensitivity to naturalism that functions in terms of human intervention and viewership. The eye’s attention to the still life’s nuances of texture, depth, and color acts as a mechanism with which the viewer reacts to a naturalistic rendering on a two-dimensional surface. This response to naturalism heightens the viewer’s sense of participation, and brings forth the recognition that the still life image is a potent, illusory interpretation of reality.

In relation to other sub-genres of still life such as the game piece and vanitas, Abraham van Beyeren’s pronk Still Life with a Silver Wine Jug demonstrates the fiction of the artist’s compositional practices and the viewer’s conception of collection. Still life is a genre that is defined by its variety: not only in its sub-genres, but in the very objects that form the composition of each piece. Together, these sub-genres provide the opportunity to depart from generalized, iconographic vanitas interpretations of still life. The pleasure that accompanies the visual attention given to still life can be considered separately from moralizing interpretations of material depiction in the case of the pronkstilleven.

In Abraham van Beyeren’s early seventeenth-century Still Life with a Silver Wine Jug [fig. 1], a selection of foods, fabrics, and other precious wares are crowded onto a table against a dark background. The silver spouted ewer or wine jar, as identified by Sullivan,[iii] might disappear into the neutral background if not for the reflection of the working artist visible on its surface and the gleaming, outlined spout and handle. The tall, bulbous metal cup behind the other objects on the table is the center of the composition, with its lid nestled in a white cloth that seems to prevent it from rolling off the table. Nevertheless, it hangs over the side and into the viewer’s space. A metal plate on the edge of the table nearly tips out of the picture plane, and folds of cloth, a compass, an orange knife, and a lemon peel also spill over the edge of the table. The dim light emerging from the upper left corner of the composition glazes over the variety of textures visible in the painting. From the firm sheen of the metal wares to the matte, nubby skin of the half-peeled lemon and other fruits, the impression of a faintly-lit space implies the need to strain one’s eyes to discern the different textures and items of the composition. As the soft, diffuse light lends itself to the meticulously detailed textures of Van Beyeren’s objects, its subtlety enhances their surfaces and tactility.[iv]

Fig. 1. Abraham Van Beyeren, Still Life with a Silver Wine Jug, early 1660s. Oil on canvas. 99.7cm x 82.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, USA.

Van Beyeren’s imperfect, crowded composition of objects offers itself as a scene painted from reality, an arrangement in the studio set up by the artist. The silver ewer in Still Life with a Silver Wine Jug, which bears a reflection of Van Beyeren himself painting the still life, is identified by Sullivan as a “stock image” or a “two-dimensional object” in a three-dimensional space, and was depicted at the same angle in several other still lifes by the artist.[v] Similarly, the porcelain bowl on the right side of the table, tipped at an angle and filled with fruit, also appears in several of Van Beyeren’s still lifes. Unlike the ewer, however, its position and orientation is adjusted each time.[vi] The repetition of similar compositions by many Dutch still life artists is attributed to a devoted interest in executing the details of different textures, forms, and materials, which in turn demonstrated “variety by means of the subtle changes in lighting and reflection obtained from the different positions of these objects.”[vii] Van Beyeren’s familiar, repetitive depiction of the same silver ewer indicates an awareness of the function of his reflected portrait in the metal, which he valued over “the compositional advantages of a mobile three-dimensional object”[viii] as demonstrated by the porcelain bowl. In this fictional, opportunistic self-portrait within a still life, the artist catches himself in the act of painting. He is thus offered up as a commodity himself, perhaps in the familiar way that still life images celebrated commodities of the Dutch Republic and were circulated as commodities themselves.[ix]

For the pronkstilleven, the composition of the still life image relies on the artist’s implied, preceding action of arranging and then painting the objects. The ever-present illusion of the still life is its parade of real, placed items. Especially in the case of Van Beyeren’s Still Life and other pronkstilleven, the artist’s action always appears to be invited by the fictive actions of those who have set the table and indulged in it.[x]As a result, the viewer pays attention to both the naturalistic rendering of the individual, luxurious objects themselves and the naturalism of the arrangement of objects that have evidently been used up by an imaginary party. In Barthes’ consideration of the Dutch still life, “the object is never alone, and never privileged; it is merely there, among many others, painted between one function an another, participating in the disorder of the movements which have picked it up, put it down—in a word, utilized.”[xi]Furthermore, within the illusion of objects depicted purely for consumption, “the painter’s craft is directed toward making objects appear as if they were made for the taking rather than resulting from the broad efforts of social labour.”[xii]Part of the illusion that accompanies the visual narrative of the pronkis the artist’s ability to position the viewer as a consumer of the painting’s content, as the naturalism of the image is sufficient in removing the markers of human effort that have gone into supporting Dutch material culture.

In Honig’s interpretation, the Dutch still life can be considered “a society’s way of managing the unusual and exciting nature of an increasingly diverse material culture.”[xiii]The visual consumption of pronkand other still life paintings allow the viewer to imagine the collection-based relationships between the objects and why they might be in the same pictorial space, or to enable “understanding to be a performance of imagination.”[xiv]Beyond a relationship singly described in terms of luxury or commodity, the close appearance of accessibility is what collectivizes the objects in the pronk pictorial space. For a viewer, these forms of participation call upon a layered assimilation of the image: the individual objects of luxury within the painting and the painting itself as an object of value are processed as available commodities.

Other sub-genres of the still life, including the game piece, also demonstrate the possibilities of visual reasoning that assemblage can encourage and achieve. A game piece such as the 1651 Still Life with a Dead Swan[fig. 2] that focuses on a seventeenth-century Dutch pastime highlights artist Jan Baptist Weenix’s contributions to this sub-genre, as prior to 1650 “still lifes of game had an essentially culinary character.”[xv]Here, they are displayed in a non-culinary space similar to the somewhat neutral, ambiguous setting of van Beyeren’s Still Life.The hunted birds in Weenix’s still life are identified as a large white swan, a small finch, a turkey, two partridges, and two bitterns; an array of fowl that reflected the populations of local and migratory birds of the seventeenth-century Dutch ecosystem.[xvi]Unlike Van Beyeren’s technical rendering of a luxury banquet scene, which quite clearly distinguishes each of its pronkobjects as individual and separate from one another, Weenix’s “broad and fluid”[xvii]yet careful brushwork makes it difficult to discern where one bird ends and another begins. The visual muddling of similar yet diverse creatures in Still Life with a Dead Swan also conceptually merges the elements into a single collection, leading viewers to perform what Honig suggests as a sort of “cognitive arrangement.”[xviii]In relation to Van Beyeren’s Still Life with a Silver Wine Jug, the fowl in Weenix’s game piece are not only united by their species or by the fact that they were hunted. Rather, they become one through the implication that they have been placed on the banquet table to be consumed.

Fig. 2. Jan Baptist Weenix, Still Life with a Dead Swan, 1651. Oil on canvas. 152.4 x 153.67 cm. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA.

Honig also points out that the often-followed narrative of seventeenth-century Dutch capitalist ventures and commodities positions the pronkstillevenas the “quintessential Dutch still life,”[xix]which allows itself and other genres of still life to be interpreted as if they were covertly, ‘really,’ about the display and overabundance of luxury goods.”[xx]As a literal display of goods, iconographic readings of still life paintings often delve into the moralistic function of the display, specifically its show of ephemerality and the mortality of the viewer. Taking a step back from a moralizing, mortalizing analysis of still life and returning to the objects themselves offers a view of the art-object that is not dependent on iconographical analysis and conjecture.

The large glass ball and its implied symbolism in Pieter Claesz’s 1628 Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball [fig. 3], an explicitly titled vanitasstill life, demonstrates how similar stylistic choices employed by different artists can achieve different meanings dependent on the other elements in the pictorial space. Claesz’s still life, which includes a violin, skull, watch, white feather, oil burner, toppled Venetian glass cup, glass ball, and other trinkets from the artist’s studio, combines several typical vanitas elements (notably the skull and time piece) that incorporate other objects (like the walnut) into its mortal message. Like the ewer in Van Beyeren’s Still Life, the reflective sphere in Claesz’s work also shows a self-portrait of the artist in the act of painting. By taking the opportunity to depict a reflected self-portrait, the artists both “transform themselves into pictures, and appear as pictorial images displayed among other representations and products of their art.”[xxi]While Van Beyeren depicted himself among an array of fine goods in order to place the artist as a commodity among commodities, Claesz’s reflected self-portrait ironically immortalizes the artist in a pictorial space that encourages a temporal worldview. In a still life with mortal reminders that have a “contagious effect”[xxii]and convey the feeling of passing time, decay, and eventual death to viewers, the objects in the image act as similar carriers of meaning for human mortality.

Fig. 3. Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, 1628. Oil on oak. 35.9 x 59 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany.

Art historian John Berger, who calls vanitas“the McGuffin of still life,”[xxiii] borrows the cinema term to argue that the strategic use and perceived significance of iconographic analysis privileges vanitas interpretations of the still life genre. In film, the MacGuffin is an element that is initially introduced to be of great importance, but actually has little significance to the plot as it develops. With the still life tradition, this perceived importance of iconography leads to a heightened importance of moral, vanitas interpretations that seem to be found within a range of qualities that are essential to the still life. Due to their presentation of both natural and man-made goods as well as their commitment to visual description and naturalism, the Dutch still life inherently possesses qualities of visible material brevity and pictorial illusion. As a result of these visual characteristics, the messages of impermanence that vanitascarries seem to be an enduring mark on many still life images. Fruit will rot, silver will tarnish, and the viewer will also waste away. Considering the detailed, illusionistic rendering of still life, Gombrich explains:

“the pleasures it simulates are not real, they are mere illusion. Try and grasp the luscious fruit or the tempting beaker and you will hit against a hard cold panel. The more cunning the illusion the more impressive, in a way, is this sermon on semblance and reality. Any painted still life is ipso facto also a vanitas.[xxiv]

Gombrich alludes to the confirmation bias of one’s search for vanitas –– concepts of brevity and mortality will be found where they are looked for. This composes its perceived importance in the realm of seventeenth-century Dutch still life. If vanitas acted as a moral rationalization for ostentatious images of luxury and abundance, every still life would be integrated into this moralistic reading, especially those of the commodity-laden pronkstilleven sub-genre.

In viewing Abraham van Beyeren’s Still life with a Silver Wine Jug without implications of vanitas iconography, food and other goods in the image possess an artistic license and “collective individuality”[xxv] of their own based on sensory pleasure and the viewer’s conception of collection. As seen in Jan Baptist Weenix’s Still Life with a Dead Swan and Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, the seventeenth-century Dutch practice of still life assemblage exemplifies a view of collection that can have cognitive or moral implications for the viewer’s perception of composition. However, even with these perceived implications, in Gombrich’s words, the still life genre is a “perfect vehicle of expression, because it has never cut itself loose from an immediate appeal to the five senses.”[xxvi] The departure from the formal and technical qualities of still life and the use of these qualities for vanitas interpretations demonstrate a lack of attention to its primary function of sensory appeal. In Barthes’ request to treat Dutch images with “a gradual and complete reading,”[xxvii]the value of the image itself, and especially that of the pronkstilleven, may be weighed in visual attention: attention to the artist’s enchanting ability to present a fictive composition from reality and to one’s own sensory pleasure.


[i]Elizabeth Alice Honig, “Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 34 (1998): 168.

[ii]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 169.

[iii]Scott A. Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 61, no.8 (1974): 274.

[iv]Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece,” 274.

[v]Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece,” 278.

[vi]Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece,” 278.

[vii]Henry S. Francis, “Still Life with Silver Wine Jar and Reflected Portrait of the Artist,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 47, no.9 (1960): 213.

[viii]Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece,” 278.

[ix]Harry Berger, Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting(New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 20.

[x]Berger, Caterpillage, 36.

[xi]Roland Barthes, “The World as Object” in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972): 4.

[xii]Miya Tokumitsu, “The Currencies of Naturalism in Dutch ‘Pronk’ Still-Life Painting: Luxury, Craft, Envisioned Affluence,” RACAR: Revue D’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review 41, no. 2 (2016): 40.

[xiii]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 183.

[xiv]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 183.

[xv]Scott A. Sullivan, “Jan Baptist Weenix: Still Life with a Dead Swan,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 57, no. 2 (1979): 66.

[xvi]Sullivan, “Jan Baptist Weenix,” 66.

[xvii]Sullivan, “Jan Baptist Weenix,” 66.

[xviii]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 183.

[xix]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 169.

[xx]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 169.

[xxi]Celeste Brusati, “Still Live: Self-Portraiture and Self-Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Still-Life Painting,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 20, no. 2/3 (1990): 168.

[xxii]Berger, Caterpillage,15.

[xxiii]Berger, Caterpillage,62.

[xxiv]E.H. Gombrich, “Tradition and Expression in Western Still Life,” The Burlington Magazine 103, no.698 (1961): 180.

[xxv]Honig, “Making Sense of Things,” 183.

[xxvi]Gombrich, “Tradition and Expression,” 180.

[xxvii]Barthes, “The World as Object,” 7.

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