Renaissance Studies: Sample Writing
Social Commentary in Dutch Still Life Paintings:
The “Something Else” of Iconography
An adequate theory of representation must take into account the culturally specific circumstances in which visual images function. . . . Works of art embody the collective psychology of entire nations and epochs in perceptible form.
The topic of Renaissance art often draws to mind the master figures of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; with their sweeping effects on their own time and influence on artists who followed, they left behind some of the world’s most beloved and appreciated pieces of art. Though certainly lesser known, two seventeenth-century Dutch artists each created a respectable body of work in the Renaissance period as well: Pieter Gerritsz and Pieter Claesz. Their works consist of primarily still-life paintings; those commonly placed in monographs include Gerritsz’ Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection and Claesz’ Still Life with Turkey-Pie. The painting by Gerritsz, now found in the Castle Museum in Norwich, England, portrays an uruly accumulation of both exotic and domestic items gathered by Sir William Paston throughout the seventeenth century. Claesz’ work, alternately, now in London’s Hallsborough Gallery, displays a dinner table laden with half-consumed victuals and various decorations. Despite the seemingly simple and straightforward subjects of these respective still-life paintings, the items exhibited therein manifest a wide-reaching social commentary of the Renaissance, from changes in philosophical beliefs to the re-stratification of both economic and social classes.
Before examination of the social explications and implications of Gerritsz’ Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection and Claesz Still Life with Turkey-Pie, it is important to acknowledge the great worth both paintings hold in their own right. The Paston painting, immense in detail and splended in scope, heralds the growth of the British Empire and records key pieces of Renaissance culture. In Still Life with Turkey-Pie, Claesz gives one example of the dozens of still life paintings he created over his lifetime, inspiring younger artists to follow his example in subject matter and in the fine quality and attention to minute aspects of artistry. While it would be worthwhile to note the various techniques and innovations used by Gerritsz and Claesz as representatives of the Renaissance, another examinatin of merit lies in what Erwin Panofsky defines as “iconography in a deeper sense” (8). It is grappling “with a work of art as a symptom of something else . . . and we interpret its compositional and iconographical features as more particularized evidence of this ‘something else'” (Panofsky 8). The “something else” in regard to Gerritsz and Claesz falls into the category of various aspects of Renaissance society and ways in which it developed from the preceding medieval era. These two artists powerfully impact views of the Renaissance time period through their disparate works of art.
Gerritsz’ Paston painting was commissioned by an English nobleman fond of travel overseas, which accounts for the exotic nature and international flavor of many pieces within the work (Kemp 177). This exoticism gives in itself a commentary on an aspect of Renaissance society, namely the seeming expansion of European thought from contact with other cultures and peoples. In regard to such subjects as the African boy, the monkey, the oversized lobster, and the parrot, Gerritsz pays heed to the fascination with foreign lands prevalent in the Renaissance. The idea of land abroad “touched the imagination of Renaissance Englishmen and acted like a heady drug to spur them to a new interest in the realms beyond the sea” (Wright 508). The Paston display of exotic subjects would lend easily to the idea of European ideological growth from interaction with a variety of people and learning from the body of knowledge unique to their culture and geographical location; however, the notion of displaying objects based on their exoticism or foreignness casts doubt on any truly meaningful contact with foreign people. Gerritsz heaps the subjects in a manner of disarray for his painting, portraying a certain disrespect for that which he is representing; in addition, painting animals, objects, and a person as a record of collection speaks more to personal vanity and self-centeredness than to true appreciation for the constitution of the collection. Whether the decision of the artist or he who commissioned the work, the Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection belies the first reaction of evidencing foreign influence on European thought. Rather, in the manner of display and the advertisement of possession, it represents a stubbornness to adhere to current ideological standpoints despite the richness of other cultures to be found on travels or imperial voyages.
The display of foreign items in Gerritsz’ painting blends with those more commonly found on European soil in an incohesive mass of objects, both living and inanimate. Martin Kemp counts “thirteen items of virtuoso goldsmithery” amongst the musical instruments, rich fabrics draped in the background, metalwork decanters of various size, an abundance of fruit, and a smattering of other items (Kemp 177). Not found in medieval paintings, this advertisement of accumulation pervades many Renaissance pieces of art, which points to a larger social movement rather than simply a personal aberration of the pride of possession. Part of the medieval philosophy of Thomas Aquinas decried private wealth, for “an abundant possession of wealth makes for a corresponding abundance of anxiety, and this does greatly hinder people¹s minds from being totally given to God’s service” (Cantor 300). Here in the Renaissance, not only do people aim for wealth itself (as do many people in all ages, certainly), but have no qualms about advertising their focus on it and on the results of their wealth. The materialism evident in the Paston painting may spring from a change in philosophical beliefs from the medieval period, or a growing disregard for them, which in turn led to modifications of behavior. Claire Farago explains regarding visual perceptions of art in the early twentieth century, “The notion that all art, regardless of its origins or stylistic conventions, could embody the world view of an entire nation or people . . . indicated that ‘vision’ had come to signify metaphorically the entire process from physical sensation to philosophical reflection and deliberation” (73). Gerritsz’ painting fits neatly into Fargo’s metaphor for the scope of vision through the materialism evident therein and its consequent portrayal of society’s changing philosophical beliefs.
Another aspect of Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection which stands out particularly includes two groupings: timepieces and musical instruments, actually an interconnected pair. Gerritsz paints a wall-mounted clock, an open-faced pocket watch, and the more rudimentary hourglass all within this work, a strong density indicating the awareness of the passing of time. Not only does this preoccupation with time portray a human-centered perspective with the measurements for time created by man, but it could subtly point to the anxiety of the nobility over the growing and rising middle class; realizing their time for sole rule of the realm may be coming to an end, moments and hours become more important. Louis B. Wright claims the tremendous influence of the middle class on the time period: “the whole ferment of the Renaissance is traceable to the development of the middle class” (4). He explains that politics, economics, and industrial development, among other cultural growth, all owe thanks to the bourgeoisie for acting as catalyst (Wright 4-10). The upper classes of the Renaissance could hardly have ignored this influence; hence, the growing concern with the passage of time. However, to retain their position and, more importantly, keep their pride intact, the nobility needed to appear nonchalant and even carefree. In the Paston collection, this necessity appears in the form of musical instruments, which speak of leisure time (and thus wealthno need for work) and the joyous creation of music. Gerritsz’ painting, through the groupings of timepieces and musical instruments, displays a more psychological concern of the nobility as the growth of the middle class accelerates in the Renaissance.
Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection manifests a variety of social comments, from exoticism and its inability to truly show growth away from Eurocentric thought, the entropy of medieval philosophy in pervasive materialism and the exhibition of such, to concerns of the upper classes regarding the bourgeousie made palpable through a preoccupation with time. Pieter Claesz’ Still Life with Turkey-Pie, with its subjects of food and table-top items, may seem even less likely to act as a voice toward Renaissance society; however, this work of art certainly speaks astutely to a number of societal facets. In a similar fashion to Gerritsz’ painting, Claesz’ still life comments on changing cultural allowances regarding philosophy. Each subject in the painting focuses on man and his activities: the process of eating and drinking, and fashionable decoration in the subtlety of the large bird (a holdover from medieval banquets) and fine ornamental shells on elaborate bases. Gone is the centering on God found in so many medieval works of art; here, man¹s basic needs of nourishment are addressed as well as self-indulgence and, to a lesser degree, an advertisement of wealth. Attributing Renaissance art with a humanist focus becomes an obvious conclusion in works such as this, and is demonstrated further in the words of one of Claesz’ predecessors in the art world. An Italian, Leon Battista Alberti, argues regarding the early Renaissance that art ought to please the multitude, lining up with and articulating “the standards of man, his needs and his legitimate pleasures” (Levey 116). Indeed, not only in art, but in every aspect of society man begins to become the center: Michael Levey asserts about the Renaissance, “The truth of the human condition, however uncomfortable, was what was nagging at men’s minds” (17). More simply, he argues, “[M]an himself is the Renaissance preoccupation” (25). The philosophical standpoint of humanism, found in Pieter Claesz’ still life artwork with its focus on man¹s activities and possessions, provides an example of society¹s growing acceptance of re-centering life away from God.
In regard to food itself, Still Life with Turkey-Pie creates a means by which class and social standing can be measured and displayed, offering a clear examination of one Renaissance standard of judgment from these standpoints. Claesz paints a variety of nourishment in his work: the turkey pie, obviously, with such supporting viands as bread, olives, lemon, grapes, oranges, clams, and salt. These choices of food, certainly of the upper class in its assortment of domestic and imported victuals, can not be underestimated, as asserted in a recent book about Renaissance diet and its far-reaching meaning and consequences. In Eating Right in the Renaissance, Ken Albala states, “The social connotations of food are perhaps the most powerful determinant of dietary preferences” (184). Peoples of the Renaissance carefully selected foods because of their associated meaning, under the doctrine of “An exquisite dish makes the eater exquisite,” more particularly in this era than others because of the growth of the middle class (Albala 184). As Albala explains, “[T]he social meaning of food grows in intensity when the class structure is in danger of disruption by social mobility” (185). Dietaries popular in the Renaissance instructed middle class readers on how to choose foods to mimic the courtier¹s diet and which foods to avoid so as to avoid debasement, in addition to the more useful information about the healthfulness of various foods (Albala 191, 205). This obsession with the choice of viands created a distinctive diet for the various social classes, reflecting “a more intense cultural division in Europe and a growing anxiety over the shifting boundaries of class” (Albala 201). Claesz’ choice of food as subject in his painting, then, exposes this preoccupation with social standing, again on the part of an upper class man, in his position lacking total security in the era of the Renaissance.
Within similar bounds, Claesz’ Still Life with Turkey-Pie also evidences the social politics game undoubtedly played in the time period. Taking the stance that the original owner of this painting held rank as a nobleman, the social motivation for displaying the work would likely fall into one of two categories: personal vanity, in satisfaction of the ability to purchase and consume high quality food, and subsequently pay to have this permanently documented, or as influence on those who would see it recognize for themselves the class status and economic viability which vanity has already revealed to the owner. Claesz combines the power of the visual with the meaning of the food, exemplifying the words of Albala: “If a picture speaks a thousand words, then what of the dish that savors of the homeland, or displays wealth and elegance, or smacks of simple frugality? Each of these tells a complete story about the person who eats it” (4). The experience of seeing a painting rich in detail, portraying a meal of wide cultural variety, with elaborate table adornment, would undoubtedly convince a viewer of the Renaissance of the class status of the owner of such. For a member of the nobility, Claesz’ Still Life with Turkey-Pie accurately represents class associations with food and wealth, and the means by which social power can be asserted and maintained.
The claim regarding the existence of social commentary in Pieter Gerritsz’ Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection and Pieter Claesz’ Still Life with Turkey-Pie in any degree, from philosophy to class stratification, requires the artists to take on another job description: that of historian. Claire Farago asserts, “An adequate theory of representation must take into account the culturally specific circumstances in which visual images function” (67). If theories of representation rely on historically bound conditions and events to interpret works of art, the artists then become the recorders, whether acknowledged or not, of the specific time in which they live. Indeed, approaching artists as historians creates the avenue by which to see their era more as it actually was rather than seeing it through the lens of current culture. History instructs, illuminates, and guides future generations as well as provides background as to the reasons why current society may have developed the way it did. Acknowledging the artist as able and obliged to portray this history, in one or many components of society, gives greater significance to the labor of the artist as well as the importance of nurturing the arts in all eras.
Pieter Gerritsz and Pieter Claesz, Dutch painters of the Renaissance, may not be particularly well-known for their respective still life artwork, but they do deserve recognition for their ability to incorporate various social commentary into apparently straightforward paintings. The former’s Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection sheds light on exoticism and the failure of travel and imperial behavior to elevate the cultural awareness of Europe, the materialism prevalent in the Renaissance as evidence of a changing philosophical viewpoint, and the preoccupation with time which signalled an upper class distress in regard to the rising middle class. The Still Life with Turkey-Pie of the latter purports the importance of such issues as the rise of humanism with man¹s preoccupation with himself, the means and motivation for the displaying of food in regard to class and social standing, and how the social politics of this exhibition play out in the milieu of the Renaissance. Though looking back from the cushion of three centuries, Herbert Marcuse accurately sums up the position of Gerritsz, Claesz, and legions of other artists, and legitimizes the importance of their craft: “The truth of art lies in this: that the world really is as it appears in the work of art” (xii).
Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Aquinas, Thomas. “Poverty.” In The Medieval Reader. Ed. Norman F. Cantor. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994. 300-301.
Claesz, Pieter. Still Life with Turkey-Pie. The Hallsborough Gallery, London. In The Web Gallery of Art. (25 November 2002).
Farago, Claire. “‘Vision Itself Has Its History’: ‘Race,’ Nation, and Renaissance Art History.” In Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650. Ed. Claire Farago. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995. 67-88.
Gerritsz, Pieter. Still Life of the Paston (Yarmouth) Collection. Castle Museum, Norwich, England. In Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650. Ed. Claire Farago. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995. Fig. 9.1.
Kemp, Martin. “‘Wrought by No Artist’s Hand’: The Natural, the Artificial, the Exotic, and the Scientific in Some Artifacts from the Renaissance.” In Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650. Ed. Claire Farago. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995. 177-198.
Levey, Michael. Early Renaissance. Style and Civilization. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.
Panofsky, Erwin. Introductory. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes In the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. 3-17.
Wright, Louis B. Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1935.