This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).
‘Absence’ is not the first word one thinks of upon seeing a seventeenth-century Northern European still life painting. Filled with exotic flowers, porcelain-ware, gold cups, curiosities and food items, the canvas is densely involved with the daily life of the burgher society. By employing heavy symbolism along with material riches, still life paintings warn their audience of the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures. In the early 1600s, the genre developed and flourished in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands in response to the increasing urbanisation of cities such as Antwerp, Haarlem, or Leiden.
Still life painting is detached from the human form, existing in a timeless state that enables the artist to collate plants and other such objects that would never be able to coexist in real life. The usual function of the presumed artist, therefore, is one of the divine collector, who remains out of frame to better showcase the ‘materials’ – both in terms of subject matter and in a more literal sense, of paint and canvas. However, Clara Peeters, a Flemish artist working at the genre’s peak, rebelled.
Clara Peeters was born into this newly-wealthy, newly-transformed society in Antwerp, 1594. She is noted by art historians as the only female Flemish artist specialising in still life painting in the seventeenth century, and although it appears that her career was well-established, hardly any information survives about her life. As such, she is an ‘absent’ figure of the era. This is well exemplified by her omission from the records of the Painter’s Guild of Antwerp and more uncertainties about the exact place, or even, date of her death (placed around 1639 in most accounts). And yet, the most striking feature of her work is an apparent determination to make herself present by inserting her own form into a genre that is characterised by the total absence of the human figure.
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Nuts, Candy, and Flowers, 1611, oil on panel, 52 x 73 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain (Image: www.museodelprado.es)
Still life was one of the only available fields for women artists to pursue professionally because they were barred from studying anatomy, thereby unable to advance to the ‘higher’ genre of multi-character history painting. Even without formal training in figure studies, Peeters frequently portrayed herself looking out to the viewer, reflected in the polished metal and glassware objects dotted throughout her painted banquet pieces. A great example is Still Life with Nuts, Candy, and Flowers (1611) where Peeters appears as a reflection in both the silver pot and the gold cup. These tiny self-portraits serve as an affirmation of her presence in the male-dominated art world of the era. A simple brushstroke, thus, carries the radical implication that a woman is as capable of divine, creative invention as a man. And Peeters, never demure, openly confronts her audience and flips expectations on their head, sneaking up on us in a place we least expect: amongst the assortment of tulips and almonds. By contemporary standards, this might seem a subdued rebellion, but Clara Peeters pioneered a way for women artists to assert their presence at a time when women were more objectified than the fruits in a still life painting.
Although shocking that it took them so long, it is no wonder that the Museo Nacional del Prado devoted their first monographic exhibition on a female artist to the still lives of Clara Peeters in 2016. In their abstract for the exhibition, the curator proclaims “…all the information we have on Clara Peeters comes from her paintings,” and whilst this means she will always remain a mystery, a slightly absent figure from art history, at least what we do know of her was presented on her own terms.
To celebrate Peeters, I’ve combined my penchant for still life paintings with my passion for baking. The cross-over between the two led to the creation of the following recipe inspired by the plate of dried figs, raisins and almonds in Still Life with Nuts, Candy, and Flowers. This cake is perfect for autumn and winter. It is rich but not overbearingly so, and relatively easy to make. I recommend it for afternoon teas or as a pick-me-up between readings and essay submissions.
CLARA PEETERS INSPIRED ALMOND AND FIG CAKE
Preparation: approx. 30 minutes
Baking time: 30 minutes
Batter makes around 16 slices (depending on size of cake tin)
150 grams of unsalted butter
200 grams caster sugar
4 medium eggs
300 grams ground almonds
1 teaspoon baking powder
Whole almonds, dried figs, fresh figs and raisins
Gingerbread spice mix to taste
Preheat oven to 170⁰C.
Line a round cake tin with baking paper. It is better to not cut the baking paper to a circle as we will be caramelising sugar in it first, and it may become very runny. The excess paper will catch any of the caramel that seeps out from the tin. If you can, place the lined cake tin into a larger tin to prevent the caramel dripping onto the bottom of the oven.
Toss two tablespoons of caster sugar into the lined cake tin and place inside oven. Keep an eye on the sugar so it doesn’t burn. When ready, it should turn a golden yellow colour and become runny in consistency.
Meanwhile, beat room temperature soft butter and the remainder of the sugar together with a whisk. Then add the 4 eggs one by one, whisking continually. You may want to scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula to get all the batter evenly mixed in. It is very important to add the eggs individually as this creates a fluffier batter. Eventually, the batter will become smooth.
After adding all the eggs, add the 300 grams of ground almond in small portions, continuing to whisk. Add the teaspoon of baking powder and desired amount of gingerbread spice mix. At this point, the batter will become quite thick.
Finally, add roughly 1 teaspoon of chopped dried figs and 1 tablespoon of raisins into the batter. Mix the dried fruits in evenly.
By the time the batter is ready, the sugar should be nicely caramelised. Take the tin out of the oven and place whole almonds and the halved fresh figs face down into the tin in any decorative pattern you would like. This will become the face of the cake when baked.
Once you have arranged the almonds and the figs, start spooning the batter into the tin. You need to add the thick batter in little chunks because adding it all at once may accidentally dislodge the fig-almond pattern you just laid down. Once all of the batter is in the tin, you can smooth out the cake’s top using a spatula.
Place the tin back onto the other, larger tray and place in the preheated oven, continuing to keep the heat at 170⁰C. Bake for roughly 30 minutes, although times may vary depending on the oven. One way to test when the cake is done is to insert a clean toothpick into the middle. When it comes out clean the cake is fully baked and ready.
Leave to rest in the tin for 5 minutes, then put out on a cooling rack.
Clara Peeters Inspired Almond and Fig Cake (Image: Aniko Petri)