How long do we spend looking at things? Really looking? Early modern women were often urged to be patient, and their skills of slow, close and acute observation can be seen in their naturalistic representation of nature in a variety of media (painting, drawing, needlework and more). The text below derives from a class exercise in patient looking, where the students and I looked closely at one image and wrote a visual analysis, bringing in comparisons as appropriate.
This is now also available as a video lecture
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a silver-gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruit, sweetmeats, bread sticks, wine and a pewter pitcher. 1611. Oil on panel. 52x73cm. Madrid, Prado
Placed upon a table, in a seemingly random fashion, are a collection of objects – an intricately worked cream ceramic vase to our left, so stuffed with an abundance of colourful flowers that some have fallen out, scattered on the table – the leaves jutting out over the edge into our space to the lower left. Next to that, dominating the centre of the composition, is a round scalloped white Faenza bowl, full of dried fruits – dates, almonds and white sweatmeets. At the centre, just at the edge of the table, is a golden goblet, its lid sporting a classicising male figure with staff and shield, evoking the shape of an ecclesiastical chalice. Perhaps, like the glass behind the bowl, it contains wine.
The artist here shows her skills of observation as she shows how the the fall of light through transparent substances changes the colour of wine from a dark crimson to a startling scarlet. The glass itself was of Italian origin and made in Antwerp at this time by Italian immigrants. The right-hand side of the composition seems more domestic in tone. At the front a circular pewter bowl contains curved bread sticks and scattered white sweets, as if discarded during a meal. Behind this stands a dark metallic pitcher or jug – ready to pour the wine perhaps, the reflections on its curved sides demands our attention. Geometric areas of white light bounce off its surface, and, if we look closely, we can see two tiny reflections of the artist – one upside down – shining in the light. We see the reflection again if we peer closely at the central goblet – a miniature Clara Peeters looks back at us in tiny smudges of paint.
A medly of textures, surfaces, reflections and a multiplicity of colours, this is a panel that demands patient looking. This patience is, according to Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, a quality associated with women artists. Certainly, Peeters worked patiently in her very many minutely rendered still lives that became hugely popular in the first half of the 17thcentury in her native Holland and well beyond, leaving 31 works that show her signature between 1607 and 1621. Unfortunately, there is little recorded about her life beyond her works. What we do know is that she was one of the pioneers of still life painting, said to have its roots in scientific illustration – in fact, this image of 1589 by the Netherlandish polymath, Joris Hoefnagel, is often called the first still life painting. It’s no accident that it presents flowers for his mother. These images so often are a tribute to the powers of observation and a way of making the beauties of nature into a permanent gift.
Like many other women who painted flowers, Peeters’ influences seemed to be related to scientific observation, particularly the tradition of illustrated herbals– which in turn afforded women designs for the traditional feminine pursuits of embroidery and lace making. In fact, Peeters’ flowers in this painting – from tulips, to narcissi, to roses – have been linked to printed images by the early netherlandish engraver, Adriaen Collaert. She shared this link between her artistic pursuits and early scientific work with many of her female counterparts – such as those artists related to the Accademia dei Lincei, the “Academy of the Lynx-eyed”, which was founded in Rome in 1603. These links point up the improtance of “slow-looking”, of careful observation over a long period of time before committing image to canvas, paper, or panel. We can see this in action, perhaps, in the later German naturalist and artist Maria Sibilla Merian’s work. For example, her account of watching the Pease Blossom moth:
I have often seen hovering over the light blue flowers of the Consolida regalis the enchanting little moth that I depict here; so well known it is for its beauty and unusual colouring that I found myself wondering more than once from what caterpillar it might spring. I therefore pursued my research until I found the caterpillars I was looking for on the flowers of this very plant, to which they cause great damage since they not only like to feed upon them, but often devour the leaves and flowers with such voracity that they leave the stem completely bare … I have portrayed one of these small moths in the centre of the picture, poised on two green leaves, the more to delight the eye of the nature lover the more attentive and acute the eye is, and to lend lustre to this tiny work of art of indefatigable nature
This careful looking, this patience, was perhaps central to much of the art produced by women at the turn of the seventeenth century. Nature was observed over time and represented minutely, carefully and patiently. To return to Clara Peeters’ image – working with time in myriad ways, this painting both shows a fleeting moment (the bitten pretzel, the hazy image of the artist), but also suggests the eternity of nature (the flowers of different seasons). It shows the richness of possessions (the gold cup, the faence bowl, the wine glass) but also the inevitability, perhaps, of death.
Want to read more?
If you’re interested in how to hone your skills of visual analysis, there are many introductory texts (like Anne d’Alleva’s How to Write Art History) that you could try. To be honest, just reading widely, thinking about how writers you admire achieve the affects they do, and taking a notebook with you to art galleries and writing down your impressions is a great start.
For a classic discussion of “art” and “craft”, including thinking about femininity and flower painting, read:
Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts”, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: I B Tauris, 2nd edition, 1995), 50-81.
For more on women and the culture of observation in what we now call art and science, see:
Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, “‘La femminil pazienza”: Women Painters and Natural History in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Studies in the History of Art 69 (2008), 158-185 (to which my description is very much indebted)
Schiebinger, Londa. “Women of Natural Knowledge”. In Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston eds., The Cambridge History of Science, vol 3: Early Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 192-205.
For more on Clara Peeters, see the Prado website with links to videos about their 2016 exhibition of her work, and the catalogue of that exhibition.
For a starting point on Maria Sybilla Merian, see
Reitsma, E Maria Sibylla Merian & daughters: Women of Art and Science. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam (2008). You will need to log in to Internet Archive to borrow this book; it’s free to do so.