In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic became a powerhouse of economic, industrial, military, scientific and cultural success.
It was the Dutch Golden Age, a time of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. The Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Dutch war of independence against the rule of Habsburg Spain, had been fought and won.
Independence led to greater urbanization and a global trading empire that stretched from the Dutch East Indies to the Caribbean West Indies, from South America to west Africa, and to the South Pacific islands the Dutch named New Zealand and Tasmania.
The large Dutch naval fleet dominated the seas, defeated the English Royal Navy at Medway, profitably captured Spanish and Portuguese ships and ambitiously traded grain, herring and textiles for luxury goods to satisfy rich burghers and a rising affluent middle class of merchants, traders and brokers.
Fruits and vegetables were imported from the Mediterranean; tobacco, squash, corn, tomatoes and sugar from the Americas; tea, silk and porcelain from China and Japan; spices from Java; gold, silver and slaves from Guinea.
There was a desire to show off this new wealth by the luxuries that indicated status. How to show it? By art!
For artists, it was a bonanza as works of art, whether originals, copies or prints, were in demand and to be found in almost all Dutch homes. This desire for art in a time when religious art was suppressed by Dutch Calvinism, led to the evolution of an independent still life genre remarkable for detailed realistic naturalism and symbolic meaning.
How was it interpreted? As class status? As Protestant morality lessons? As “memento mori” (remember you will die) or “vanitas” (vanity) works? Actually, by all. They are documents of how the Dutch saw themselves, their land and their possessions.
Initially, Dutch still life paintings were modest domestic “ontbijtjes” (breakfast) subjects in keeping with Calvinist religious humility: bread, butter, cheese, salt, perhaps some herring and beer. Then came the “banketjes,” (banquets) with oysters, shrimp, olives, bread, game, grapes and lemons on silver or pewter trays and rummer wine cups arranged on silk over a wooden table.
As prosperity and materialism increased, the “pronk” (show off) paintings displayed tables laden with flowers and exotic fruits, Chinese blue and white porcelain, ostrich egg “nautilus” cups, seashells, gold and silver trays, fragile Venetian glass goblets and Persian carpets.
By the end of the 1600s, even a Black slave might be included, on request, if the client didn’t have a servant but thought it would indicate wealth. All items in the paintings held understood symbolic meanings. Bread, wine and grapes were Eucharist reminders of the body and blood of Christ.
Apples represented temptation, pomegranates fertility, figs prosperity, peaches good health, rotting medlars decay, fish and lamb Christ, lobster and shellfish gluttony, oysters aphrodisiac lust. Most important of all were the costly bittersweet lemons, artfully peeled with skin in spiralling coils to signal life is fleeting.
Empty wine glasses also indicated life and pleasure as ephemeral. Broken, tipped and stacked vessels meant disorder and loss of innocence. The chalice represented the church. Seashells reminded one of pilgrimages, saints, birth and resurrection.
Books were pride in knowledge. Globes meant earth and sky. Musical instruments gave enjoyment but futility with a broken string. The draining hourglass and the watch portrayed the passing of time. The candle was faith in God when burning, death when extinguished. Birds were resurrection. The skull was mortality and a contemplation of earthly life as short and death inevitable.
As we approach the festive season and plan what we will have on our tables, what symbolic meaning will it have for us? Will we think about the origin of our food, who picked it and under what circumstances?
Some of it will be local, much will be globally sourced with lemons from Argentina, oranges and grapes from South Africa, berries from Peru, coffee from Colombia, olives from Greece, kiwis from New Zealand and, yes, Gouda cheese from Holland. It will be a time of feasts, of giving, gratitude and the celebration of life, for however long it may be.
Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She was also head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her next lecture series, “Concepts of Beauty: Artists, Models & Muses,” is on Zoom for the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, 11 a.m. on Thursdays, Jan. 6 to 27.