Treasures of a Still Life

By Marie-Caroline Roussel

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has an amazing selection of Early Modern artworks on display as part of the permanent collection in the Michael and Renata Pavilion for Peace. What peaked my interest was the Curiosity Cabinet replica, a small circular room set up to evoke 17th-century Wunderkammern (chambers of marvels). In the 16th and 17th centuries, European Atlantic ports were thriving on unprecedented levels of global trade, and many patrons in European cities would showcase their wealth and knowledge by inviting fellow aristocrats to see the fascinating objects they acquired from all over the world. The Cabinet of curiosities is widely understood as the precursor to the modern museum. Such objects were commonly categorized as Artificialia (man-made wonders, like an automated clock, for example) and Exotica (foreign items, often strange, like a taxidermy crocodile), and you can see a variety of both types in this part of the museum: shells, muskets, eggs, metal cups, and many more are displayed alongside a selection of still-life paintings.

The still-lives in this makeshift cabinet of curiosities are especially striking - well, one of them in particular: a magnificent banketjestuk (« banquet piece ») painted in around 1650 by the Flemish artist Christian Luycks. As many other still-lives, it depicts a variety of items placed on a table, with a simple background and no figures. But if you look at the museum label, it will tell you that this piece is the masterpiece of Luycks’ oeuvre. So, for all of those who think that still-lives aren’t interesting, that after seeing one you’ve seen them all: this is my attempt to convince you otherwise.

Although being « still », this image is full of movement. The first thing we notice when we look at the image, is that there are too many objects piled up onto each other on too small a surface and they seem like they’re all about to fall over. Some of them seem like they’re already falling, like the base of the massive silver jug that seems about to slide right off the table. The spoon’s handle is also placed ambiguously and protrudes into our own space, breaking the picture plane.

Movement is also created in the compositional lines: our gaze is dragged side to side by the strong diagonals of the curtain, the jug and the lobster, only to intersect with the verticals of the glass and goblets. A vertical parallel in the architectural features draw the eye to the background. The curtain on the side looks like it has just been drawn, unveiling this display in front of our eyes. Placing artworks behind curtains was a common 17th-century Dutch viewing habit: it sought to enhance the immediate effect the image would have on the viewer.

One last compositional aspect that creates movement in this still-life is light and reflection. The variety of materials allowed Luycks to showcase his talent. It seems as though the reflections on the curved metal surfaces and in the nautilus shell will move if we tilt our heads to the side.

The synesthetic effect of this image really absorbs us into the scene. Indeed, the fruit,  

the crust and spices of the pie, even the seafood, all stimulate the sense of taste and smell. The fabrics, the metals and the porcelain appeal to our sense of touch. In addition to that, the painting is rather large (80.7 x 99.5 cm) and its perspective places us at table level. It’s like we are invited to take a seat, to partake in these delights.

This painting would certainly comfort contemporary Dutch or Flemish viewer in his wealth and colonial importance. Indeed, it illustrates the extent of successful trade with porcelain from China and spices from Indonesia, but also the fine taste and financial means required to own Augsburg silverworks. On the other hand, this artwork could also serve as an image of warning, a moral message against vanity and materialism. The overflow of objects, and the notion of time passing by (indicated by the sunset in the background, and fresh oysters) would remind the 17th-century Dutch viewer of his own mortality and not to stray off the righteous Protestant path.

Although this is all subject to personal interpretation, a still-life painting can be complex and engaging. Such an image can also be found today, as a photo in an influencers’ Instagram page, for example. In the same way, it entices us with what it displays, but it remains an image of fantasy and vanity that doesn’t belong in the real world.

I highly encourage you to pay a visit to the Curiosity Cabinet room and take a look at its wonders - they have a lot to tell.

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