small animals in 17th C Dutch paintings
Elias van den broek, detail of Still Life with Roses (1670 – 1708)
Rijksmuseum (click to zoom right in on the museum’s website)
The 17th century saw a keen interest in science and naturalism and empirical research of the natural sciences became hugely popular. One of the achievements of the period was the exploration of microbial life by Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, a lensmaker, who was the first to observe single-celled organisms and bacteria which he called dierkens, diertgens or diertjes (small animals) using the first microscope. The Dutch 17th century was also one of the great eras of horticulture (tulipmania being an interesting side effect) and botanical gardens were systematically studied. Still life and flower painters then translated all this excitement onto linen, copper and wood panel (mostly wood panel). Some painters included insects and other small animals – nearly everything that could crawl, slither or flutter in seemingly one big celebration of nature.
Snails, bugs, grasshoppers, snails, spiders, butterflies were beautifully painted in amazing detail and often would hide behind leaves and flowers, in plain sight on ledges or flying.
Rachel Ruysch 1665-1750 (portrait by Godfried Schalcken)
and her Vase with Flowers, 1700 (Mauritshuis, The Hague
(click to zoom right in on the museum’s website)
Bumblebee in Rachel Ruysch’s Vase with Flowers, 1700 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
Of the many who included small animals, Rachel Ruysch (1665-1750, the most successful female painter of the Dutch Golden Age) was one painter who represented them to great effect (see pictures above). Her father was a professor of anatomy and botany and drawing his collection of animal skeletons and mineral and botany samples from a young age was an invaluable opportunity to hone her skills. Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1613-1678) was another painter of small animals with his own unique style: his ‘forest floors’, which are effectively studies of flora and fauna, show insects, spiders, amphibians and reptiles. He was known to keep lizards and snakes as pets for his paintings and was called the snuffelaer: always hunting for inspiration in the garden (Seelig 2017).
Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Plants and Insects (1665)
Mauritshuis (click the link to zoom right in on the museum’s website)
Why were animals included in 17th century Dutch paintings? Debate goes on today. It is often said that they could be an expression of the memento mori concept: sober arrangements of objects chosen to remind viewers of the brevity of life. Flies were signs of decay. Snails could be used as symbols of resurrection, purity and our own mortality: they were long seen as an image of the Virgin Birth as people couldn’t comprehend how they could possibly reproduce with their thick calcium carbonate shell (George Wigmore).
No doubt some paintings would refer to the brevity of life, like the vanitas paintings of the time. However, it makes sense that animals could also be used as compositional elements: to counteract the large forms of flowers, to lead the eye into a certain direction, to balance bright flower colours with earthy tones.
But how about just a simple delight in painting something else than flowers and plants? An interest in the subject (e.g., Rachel Ruysch)? Injecting some playfulness? Hiding spiders behind leaves as little surprises for the viewer? Taking delight in the beautiful and delicate iridescence of a damselfly? Having painted a few flower pieces myself now, it’s great fun to paint little legs or a beautiful butterfly wing (espcially after a marathon of 15+ tulips!) and it’s a lovely idea to include a surprise. I’m convinced that 17th century painters just wanted to have some fun at times.
References / further reading:
Seelig, G (2017). Medusa’s Menagerie: Otto Marseus van Schrieck and the Scholars.
George Wigmore, Snails in art and the art of snails (blog) https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2012/10/11/snails-in-art-and-the-art-of-snails/
In the press
European tricks to help you through a pandemic, 14th century style
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562), The Triump of Death. Museo Nacional del Prado
Pandemic tips. Now we have experienced and are hopefully recovering from this truly awful COVID-19 pandemic, it is interesting to look back at how medieval and early modern Europe coped with several epsiodes of their own pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death. One of the most devastating pandemics in history, this Plague peaked during 1347-1352 (killing 30 million across Europe) and returned many times during the following centuries.
Such was the impact on life, that death was very much a motif in the arts of the time. This concerned not so much images of victims showing plague symptoms, but more of social chaos and death (NPR:Iconic Plague Images Are Often Not What They Seem): paintings and frescos showing affected skin are typically of leprosy or smallpox, and often in connection with biblical stories. Instead, imagery dealing with the Black Death shows the social devastation and the chaos of dealing with death on an enormous scale.
The Citizens of Tournai (present-day Belgium) burying the dead during the Black Death of 1347-1352.
Miniature from The Chronicles of Giles Li Luisis (1272-1352)
Medical knowledge was virtually non-existent and with the larger population trying to understand what was going on, various things were thought to ‘cure’ the plague. A wildly interesting ‘cure’ was the so-called Live Chicken Treatment: a chicken’s back and rear end was plucked and placed on the swollen glands and buboes of the plague victim. The chicken was then strapped in place. The idea was that the chicken would draw the disease out of the patient. It’s beak was even held close so the chicken would ‘breathe’ from its back and increase the effect. If the bird showed signs of sickness then this was proof that the method worked. It was then taken off, washed, and strapped back on – until the plague victim or the chicken died.
So there you go – we can count ourselves very lucky that we live in 2022.
Dutch Fine Paintings Ltd, 2022.
Strange things in old Dutch paintings
Still life of porcelain vessels containing sweets, pewter plates bearing sweets and chestnuts, three pieces of glassware and a bread roll on a table draped with a mauve cloth, 1600-1619. Private collection
In the first decades of the 17th century, a selection of painters in Holland and Flanders produced a new type of painting and an entirely new genre: still lifes showing food on tables. Common and luxurious food items of that time such as bread, cheese and butter, fish, seafood, vegetables, meat and sweets on porcelain and silver plates were shown with wine and beer in different types of (gilt) glassware. These were painted with an incredible sensitivity to the expression of texture, colour and light.
Published by the Mauritshuis, the book Slow Food provides great insight into this genre and the significance of food in paintings made in the southern and northern Netherlands during 1600-1640. I’m summarising some interesting bits from this book for you here.
Paintings of food and only food had not been produced before: in the previous centuries food items had played a ‘supporting role’ in paintings that focused on figures from biblical scenes or market paintings, as can be seen in the work of Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and Joachim Beuckelaer (1533-1574). The new genre was so fresh that people did not know what to call it at the time. Various terms were used as is ecident from collectors’ inventories, such as “banketjes” (banquets), “suyckerbanquet” (sugar/sweets), “oesterbanketjes” (oysters) and “ontbijtjes” (referring to paintings showing breakfast but also to light meals taken throughout the day).
Antwerp, which in the 16th century was the first city in the northern and southern Netherlands to become wealthy through trade and industry, likely produced the pioneers of the food painting genre, among whom was Osias Beert (1580-1623) and Clara Peeters (active 1607-1621). It is not surprising that the times of economic prosperity and abundance were reflected in the arts.
Disaster struck in 1585 however with the fall of Antwerp after a year-long siege of the city by the Spanish. Antwerp had been a centre of the Dutch revolt against catholic Spain during the Eighty Year’s War (Wikipedia). The fall of the city brought about an exodus of refugees from the southern Netherlands to the north with many settling in Amsterdam and close-by Haarlem. The populations of these cities then doubled over the next 40 years, contributing to the explosion of wealth and trade in that region during the 1600s. The production of food paintings then logically flourished in Haarlem, with Floris van Dijck (1575-1651), Nicolaes Gillis (active 1612-1632), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Willem Heda (1594-1680) as ‘early’ notable painters.
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Antwerp-born and painting in Haarlem, Claesz is known for his harmonious ‘monochrome’ banketjes, using a limited palette.
Strange things and habits
Many of the items in these food paintings feel familiar to us. Herring and cheese are recognisable, which were likely painted to highlight or celebrate the significance of these for Dutch trade. Some argue that certain foods express a certain symbolism, for example cheese could be seen as representing decay and transiency due to preservation issues with food in this era. However, as a still life painter who loves painting all that is shown in 17th century Dutch still life, I don’t think symbolism is much of a factor: there is just such a delight and joy in painting texture, light and colour of objects, I don’t believe at all that such paintings carry a message. Some do of course, and very clearly so: see paintings featuring skulls. I think painters just had fun with glassware and oysters.
Some items were likely also painted to show their importance at meal times. For example, in 17th century Holland bread and salt were always present at the table. Imported from the Mediterranean, salt was important enough to be presented in beautiful silver or gilt cellars. Of course, the less wealthy part of the population might not have had access to salt.
What I was not aware of, is that when the 17th century Dutch fancied a glass of red wine, they used a glass made ‘à la façon de Venise’, glassware in the ‘Venetian fashion’. These glasses were made of fine and colourless glass and looked beautiful containing red wine. A different type of glassware, the roemer, was less elegant and made of green glass. Only white wine would be drunk from this as the green glass would give red wine an awful muddy colour.
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The luxurious silver salt cellar indicates the importance of salt during 17th century meal times (wealthy households).
Some items in the 17th century paintings look unfamiliar. In the painting of Osias Beert at the top and in the detail shown below, white crusty sticks and strange wet-looking shapes and textures are visible. Long disappeared from our tables, these are typical 17th C Dutch sugar confections which were enjoyed at the end of a meal. At that time sugar was still a luxury item enjoyed by a select part of the population. Cane sugar was imported from Madeira, West Africa and Brazil; the sugar trade was aligned with the slave trade – sadly a part of the Dutch’ path to economic success.
Sugar was used to confit fruits and vegetables and in cakes, waffles and marzipan. The white sticks, balls and other crusty shapes are sugared seeds (such as aniseed and caraway seeds), spices (cinnamon sticks) and nuts. The Dutch were able to enjoy these due to their trade with the Far East for example. Interestingly, we still enjoy sugared aniseeds today!
Osias Beert, detail.
Sugar confections which have disappeared from our tables: confit fruits and vegetables, and sugared seeds, spices and nuts.
Sugared aniseed is still enjoyed today: we sprinkle these on crispbread wherever we celebrate the birth of a baby.
Try making these yourself
In her “Kookboek van de Gouden Eeuw” (Dutch Golden Age recipe book) Manon Henzen includes a recipe for confit orange peel. If you would like to prepare this typical 17th century sugar confection, please email me for a translation of the recipe at firstname.lastname@example.org. I might give it a try myself this weekend!
Slow Food, Hollandse en Vlaamse maaltijdstillevens 1600-1640 (2017). Ed. Quentin Buvelot, Mauritshuis Den Haag
The Fall of Antwerp, 1585: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_Antwerp
Kookboek van de Gouden Eeuw, 2018, Manon Henzen, Het Zwarte Schaap (publ): https://eetverleden.nl/kookboek-van-de-gouden-eeuw/
Old Masters: painting tricks
Portrait of a Woman, Possibly Maria Trip (1639)
I often paint dark backgrounds. Learning about old techniques, I aspire to approximate those incredible backgrounds of 17th C Dutch painters, using certain pigment mixes and optical tricks. Lately I have been thinking a bit more about further pushing the suggestion of, in particular, space within that darkness. How did someone like Rembrandt create such rich and dark backgrounds and at the same time suggest such optical depth?
A lot goes on in there: backgrounds, called ‘negative space’, serve an important design purpose within the composition and ca be complex – not just a slab of black paint. They are tricky to do well but things make sense when you look at the current knowledge around old techniques. Every time I get the chance to say hi to the old folks in museums, I look at backgrounds as much as at the other elements in their paintings.
As is to be expected, 17th C Dutch painters used several tricks to create their fabulous backgrounds. For example, they used a mix of umber and ultramarine blue which creates a rich dark with a warm or cold appearance depending on the ratio, type of umber, any hints of additional colours as well as the underlying paint. Warm backgrounds were often preferred in order to emphasize those lovely crusty lead white highlights (Rembrandt was particularly good at this). A mixture of umber and ultramarine blue creates a much deeper and richer dark than a black paint can ever achieve.
To enhance the optical illusion of depth a dark pigment was glazed on top once this layer was dry. A glaze is a pigment suspended in a greater quantity of oil (linseed, poppyseed etc) than used for underlying layers of paint, resulting in a transparent paint which can be used to optically mix colours. For example, you can make a yellow look green by painting a blue glaze on top, vs mixing a green paint. This type of optical mixing is a prowerful tool and can be likened to the effect of sunlight seen through a stained glass window. Due to light bouncing about in additional paint layers an optical illusion of depth is created: a rich, deep background. In 17th C Holland the pigment which was commonly used for glazing dark backgrounds was sourced from the peat-rich region around Cologne and Kassel in west Germany.
Rembrandt van Rijn, details of Portrait of a Woman, Possibly Maria Trip (1639)
J. M. W. Turner
Lake of Geneva from Montreux (c. 1810), Los Angeles Country Museum of Art
Glass of Water and Coffeepot (c. 1761), Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Still Life with Game (c. 1750), National Gallery of Art, Washington
Video (1.15min): Portrait of Maria Trip: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/stories/one-hundred-masterpieces/story/portrait-woman-maria-trip
Portrait of Maria Trip: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-597
How to look at a Rembrandt like a conservator: https://www.queensu.ca/alumnireview/articles/2019-08-09/how-to-look-at-a-rembrandt-like-a-conservator
Jean-Siméon Chardin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Baptiste-Sim%C3%A9on_Chardin
JMW Turner: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._M._W._Turner
Old pigments painting blog: Vandyke Brown
(Cassel Earth, Cologne Earth)
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden – Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
inv./cat. no. 1562; Image credit: The Rembrandt Database.
I exclusively use pigments that were available to the 17th century Dutch painter – something that fascinates me and also keeps me tied to my roots now I’m living abroad. I use 17th century techniques and my subject matter is a nod to the interests of that time, including heritage tulips, fruit and produce still life, and bird still life. In this old pigments painting blog you’ll read more about one of the pigments I use: Vandyke Brown, also known as Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth. It has featured on artists’ palettes since 1600 and most likely earlier.
The pigment Vandyke Brown / Cassel Earth / Cologne Earth has an interesting and centuries’ old history. It was used to create deep, dark, rich backgrounds. When we think of Dutch paintings of that time, these typical backgrounds immediately come to mind.
Old pigments, in contrast to most modern ones (meaning paint developed from the 19th century onwards, such as synthetic ultramarine), need to be used with extra caution. Some are toxic (such as lead white and vermillion), some react with other pigments (e.g., lead white and orpiment), and some are fugitive / not lightfast (such as the lakes). There are many other things to consider, and throughout the centuries artists and craftsmen were aware of these (and if not, extensive modern research has revealed a lot!). Contemporary manuscripts by artists, potters and glass craftsmen and published handbooks have been a valuable source for artists since the mid-1500s. Some, for example by Willem Beurs (“De Groote Waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert”, 1692) survive today and I’m particularly excited about these Dutch notes and books, as I can read them!
De groote waereld in’t kleen geschildert, of Schilderagtig tafereel van ‘s weerelds schilderyen
Without conducting a thorough literature review, some of the information for the summary below has been lifted from manuscripts by Beurs 1692, Feller and Johnston-Feller 1997 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Van Eikema et al. 1999 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), the Pigment Database (artiscreation.com) and ColourLex (colourlex.com).
Old pigments: what is Vandyke Brown?
Vandyke Brown, now synonymous with Cassel Earth and Cologne Earth, is comprised of the humic/lignitic substances found in soil, peat and brow coal; as an ancient deposit it contains microfossils and angiosperm pollen. Chemically, iron is most abundant followed by calcium and some manganese. Throughout history the main deposits were found in the west-German regions of Cologne and Kassel (today the material is sourced from Kassel). The pigment was prepared by drying and grounding the raw material, and then mixing with linseed, walnut or poppyseed oil for oil painting. It has a beautiful, deep black-brown colour and depending on the thickness of the painted layer, can have violet undertones.
My Vandyke Brown and Cassel Earth (both NBr8)
The dry pigment. Image credit: ColourLex
Cassel / Cologne Earth is thought to have been in use since the Renaissance period and mainly in Holland and England. Unfortunately, due to the difficulty identifying organic materials using modern analytical methods, the use of this pigment can only be suspected in a number of paintings. The earliest date Cassel / Cologne Earth may have been used is during the early 1500s: an organic brown pigment was found in two paintings of 1500 to 1511 attributed to Gerard David (circa 1460-1523). Organic brown pigment was also found in paintings by Velazquez (1465-1524).
Handbooks and literature of the 17th century include recommendations for its use, confirming that it was part of painters’ palettes in that century. Karel van Mander, in his Het Schilder-Boeck (1604) recommends Cologne Earth for the shadows ‘of the flesh’ and Willem Beurs mentions Cologne Earth in his De Groote Waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert (1692).
How was Cassel / Cologne Earth used and how do I use it?
The pigment was used in oil painting, mainly as a glaze over dark areas, and in later centuries in watercolour. It was not restricted to fine art: it was used on sculptures, walls, wall and decorative papers, in woodworking and even put in snuff!
A recipe by the celebrated painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/4) survives, in which he recommends a mixture of lead white, lake, bice and earth of “colon” for painting the yeast residue on grapes and other fruit:
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image credit: Rijksmuseum
Rubens (1577-1640) is known to have included the pigment on his palette: he mixed it with ochre, creating a warm transparent brown which ‘held up well, particularly in resin varnish’. Van Dyck was Rubens’s pupil and collaborated on a number of paintings with him, so Cassel / Cologne Earth may have entered his palette at that time.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) used Cassel / Cologne Earth to create the dark backgrounds we know him so well for. In his painting Saskia van Uylenburgh as Flora (see below), Rembrandt used a mixture of yellow ochre, bone black, a small amount of lead white, and Cassel / Cologne Earth for the background areas. Cassel / Cologne Earth was most likely used as a glaze.
Now I’ve added Cassel Earth to my own palette, I’ve been using it in my backgrounds as well. Below is a painting of a Cornish shell; the background, a layer of Cyprus umber, was glazed with Cassel / Cologne Earth to create a deep and dark background bringing out the shell.
Rembrandt used Cassel Earth / Cologne Earth in a number of paintings to create rich, dark backgrounds.
Centuries of confusion
Today, due to the moderate lightfastness of NBr8, genuine NBr8 paint is sadly no longer widely available to artists, except via the fine art materials manufacturer Vasari (USA). Instead, most manufacturers use PBr8: an inorganic pigment that mainly contains manganic hydroxide and is mostly synthetic. Unfortunately, they all claim to be genuine Vandyke Brown – suggesting that the centuries’ old confusion between organic and inorganic Vandyke Brown may be alive and kicking today.One modern study on the lightfastness of NBr8 supported by The National Gallery of Art, Washington, has shown that discolouration of NBr8 may occur after an equivalent of 20-100 years exposure to museum lighting, confirming that the pigment is of intermediate light stability (Feller and Johnston-Feller, 1997). In this experiment NBr8 was glazed directly onto a bright background before exposure to light, thereby allowing more light reflection than would have been the case if NBr8 was glazed onto a dark background – the traditional 17th century method of working with this pigment. This modern conclusion of lightfastness may therefore not reflect the fate of this pigment used in the 1600s. Unfortunately this does not change anyone’s mind and most artists don’t look further than PBr8. This is a shame as the depth of colour and magic of this early pigment, and the other old pigments, is unparalleled in modern colours.
Disasters and joy
Beurs 1692. De groote waereld in’t kleen geschildert, of Schilderagtig tafereel van ‘s weerelds schilderyen. Amsterdam.
Feller, Johnston-Feller 1997. Artists’ Pigments, A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics. National Gallery of Art, Washington.
The Pigment Database (www.artiscreation.com).
Van Eikema Hommes, De Bruijn, Hermens, Wallert 1999. Still Lifes: Techniques and Style. The examination of paintings from the Rijskmuseum. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.