A shimmering Venetian glass, golden brown bread and glistening dried fruits are a few treasures contained within Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels. Impeccable details can be found in the luxurious spread across the table. These details were brilliantly painted by the Flemish still life pioneer Clara Peeters.
So why is Peeters not a household name? Well, like a lot of female artists of the time, not much is known about her. “While definite details concerning her life are scarce, records indicate that Peeters was baptized in [Antwerp, Belgium] in 1594 and married there in 1639. There is no indication that Peeters ever joined the Antwerp painters’ guild, but the records for many relevant years are missing”, says the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In terms of societal standing, her paintings seem to reveal a record of her belonging to the upper class in Antwerp.
Her training in painting is equally unknown. The cultural climate of northern Europe during the time allowed women to have more liberties compared to their contemporaries in southern Europe, especially in urban industrial areas. This would’ve most likely allowed Peeters to obtain painting instruction. “Some scholars suggest that her teacher may have been Osias Beert, a renowned still-life painter from Antwerp, although their association is not recorded”, suggests Encyclopedia Britannica contributor Ida Yalzadeh.
Peeters’s work displays her sheer skill and talent for painting. She was able to elevate the genre of still life to a whole other level. Her ability to capture the most minute of realistic details was unmatched at the time. However, besides her technical skill, there’s something special about Peeters’s paintings. There’s a distinct feeling of a intimacy and femininity. As a Flemish woman in the 17th century, she understood home life in a way no male contemporary could. She used that knowledge in a brilliant way by capturing the story of Flemish female perspective of home life in her paintings.
This mix of feelings and unmatched skill caused her to raise the attention of artists throughout the Netherlands. “The painter’s influential techniques and ideas were promulgated throughout what is now the Netherlands and Germany. Consequently, those who adopted [Peeters’s] style are considered to be members of her small, but prominent, artistic school, called by some scholars the ‘circle of Peeters’”, states Yalzadeh. This was simply unheard of. A woman leading an art school? This sort of thing would have Peeters’s male contemporaries in Rome throw a fit of outrage.
Peeters’s talent is also a reason why she, as of February 2017, is the only female artist to have a solo exhibition in Spain’s Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. “When the Prado decided a few years ago to search for a female artist to showcase, the museum's director went to Alejandro Vergara, the senior curator of northern European paintings. Vergara says Peeters immediately came to mind”, says NPR journalist Lauren Frayer.
And why not have her come to mind? Peeters’s work is beyond a simple capturing the image of a table of items in paint. She tells her story in paint. She even goes so far to include herself in small reflections on the reflective items in her paintings. It’s her way of saying, “I’m more than a painter, I’m a person with a life of her own.” She breaks the fourth wall and pulls you into her experience of the world. This is exactly why whenever I look at a piece by Peeters, I feel like she’s saying “Pull up a chair and listen to my story.”
Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.