Social Commentary in Dutch Still Life Paintings:

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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.

--Claire Farago
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...
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