Clara Peeters on Her Own Terms

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.