A Still life breakdown

Pieter Claesz painted “A still life with musical instruments” in 1623. The painting included powerful symbolic messages.

In this post I break down some of the elements in the image and give meanings to each element. It is deceptive to think that this painting is just a still life of a casual display of everyday objects associated with a meal, smoking or music. The objects all have significance within the Image and allude to many meanings.

Human made objects point to fine craftsmanship, exotic rich materials such as porcelain.. Fruits and salt (an expensive item) point to Dutch prosperity and wealth. The fine silverware and glass adds to this.

The overall display is very ordered and precise with the broken pie… Spoon and sweets clearly arranged. The musical instruments lie ready for use but the watch is well lit and centred in the image ensuring the viewer will not forget that in time all these things will pass into time itself.

The senses are alluded to, Taste – the fine foods… pie… Bread and wine. Touch – the variety of surfaces and textures. Smell – the brazier burning and again the wine and foods. Hearing – The instruments ready to play.

The pile of books alludes to knowledge and learning and the mirror resting prompts the viewer to look at themselves and consider if they are learned as well as helping balance the image.

The red wine is rich and the glass is decorated and sets the colour pallette for the image. It’s reflection in the mirror balances the display of food and appears richer in colour than the original.

The food references the fruits of nature and cooking whilst exotic olives, almonds and sweets along with fine wine signify expensive pleasures and wealth. All are laid out on a crisp white cloth to signify cleanliness.

The three musical instruments suggest a trio of players. A violin dominates the foreground symbolising that music is very important in this scene and the workmanship of the piece is again a signifier of wealth.

The tortoise in the foreground is a symbol of long life, wisdom and peace but could just allude to prosperity and the contemporary need to collect exotic animals.

The timepiece which appears in many of Claeszs other works is a constant reminder of the passing of time

Without the watches very central inclusion the whole painting could be interpreted as a simple still life spread. Instead the painting stresses the effects of the passage of time On all these pleasure within.

The lighting of the piece is balanced across the image but each item is well lit and none seem to fade into the darkness of the background.

Source – appreciating art Diana newell

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