It is no coincidence that some objects appear more frequently in Dutch still life paintings than others during the Baroque period. We see lots of paintings that include fruit, fancy silverware, flowers, candles, books, jewelry, musical instruments, and that ominous skull that keeps reappearing. What does it all mean? I will examine a particular still life in detail to provide the model for inspection into this genre, but it will be useful to first offer a bit of general overview.
Putting aside the purely material intentions of artists who were advertising trade with the Eastern world and a predominant fixation on tulips, these paintings do carry a prevalent religious theme. Knowing the Protestant minimalist tendencies of Genre paintings and nature landscapes, a still life is a relatively simple work of art to look at. The humility of man (and more specifically the humility of the artist) is being expressed through this latent simplicity, but the underscoring themes that reside beneath the surface of the work demonstrate the bent of the artist toward the deep, personal connection with God, profound philosophical thoughts, and the innermost sincerity of human emotion. Compare this to Rubens' Raising of the Cross, an elaborate, huge painting that featured heavy action and drama with bulky figures and flowing, multicolored robes. A still life, on the other hand, features the simple, Protestant mindset of a table set with certain objects, objects to be celebrated on one level for their sheer beauty and on a subliminal level for their deeper, philosophical connotations. Objects, as I said, become symbols, representing abstract concepts of life, death, God, the universe, and mankind.