Ceramist Irit Biran first came across the still life paintings of Clara Peeters, a 17th-century artist, at an exhibition dedicated to her a year ago at the Prado Museum in Madrid. “I saw a short article in the newspaper before my trip,” she says, “and it spoke to me immediately.” That was because of Peeters’ feminist point of view – she was one of the few women of her generation who became a professional artist – and because of her interest in food.
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“When I arrived in Madrid I looked for the exhibition, which was held in one of the rooms in the museum’s new wing. The curators had collected a significant number of her works and painted the walls of the space in black. The images stand out from the canvases in all their sensuality and color, and I was amazed by the intensity of the paintings, especially her portrayals of fish and seafood. Peeters is considered the first artist to paint still lifes of fish, and the images are so realistic you feel as though you’re in a fishmonger’s store.
“She also had a love of ceramics. In some of the paintings there are piles of ceramic plates and porcelain vessels that arrived in Europe for the first time from the East through the port of Antwerp, the city where she apparently lived and worked. When I returned home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the images in Peeters’ works.”
There are 39 known paintings signed by Clara Peeters. There are also unsigned paintings attributed to her, and works that are mentioned in historical records whose traces have been lost over time, but the only information we have about her comes from her work. There is no documentation of her birth or the circumstances of her death: There is no marriage license, if any existed; nor is she registered in Antwerp’s professional guild for artists.
The first dated picture was painted in 1607 – Peeters reached the peak of her creative activity in 1611-1612 – the rest is speculation based on observation of her paintings. Was she, like other exceptional female artists of her generation, the daughter of one of the famous artists in the Flemish city? For a woman of the time who desired creative freedom, leaving home at the age of 12 to 14 to become a painter’s apprentice would have been an obstacle. Was she sponsored by wealthy patrons? Her works are rich in motifs that reflect the wealth of the new merchants, who had adopted the habits of the nobility, including the importance of fine food and the magnificent banquets. What did the dishes and food she placed on the table in her works mean to the people of the 17th century? And what do they tell us today?
The absence of biographical details adds an intriguing element of mystery to Peeters’ works. Says Einat Arif-Galanti, an Israeli photographer and artist who conducts a constant dialogue in her work with classical still-life painters: “I would be so happy to sit with her over coffee and cake and hear about her compositions, her palette of colors, and what it was like to be a woman in a world like that. To see what type of person she was.
“At first glance, these seem to be ordinary still lifes. We’re familiar with quite a few works in that genre, and most of them portray the same items, which receive the same treatment. But when you look more closely, there’s always something in her paintings that’s a bit different. A kind of sensual-nervous tension: The glass that’s placed in front and violates the perfect composition – only someone who knows how to create a perfect composition also knows how to cause such dissonance within it.
“The leg of the roast chicken that protrudes inelegantly, because there’s no elegance in death, on the backdrop of a beautiful clay pot; the tiny crack in the porcelain bowl; and the chunk of cheese that looks as though someone took a bite out of it. All this implies something beyond the usual classic themes of vanitas and still life. The message is not just ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we die.’ A good still life is like forensic evidence. Peeters is providing us with testimony about her life and her work; we just have to decipher her,” says Arif-Galanti.
Irit Biran was born in Rehovot and lives with her husband and four children in a spacious house in Moshav Sde Warburg. For years she worked as a commercial lawyer. “It bored me,” she says simply, “and I didn’t like the field enough to pay the price it demands in terms of time and involvement. I took time off, and during that period I attended a class once a week and learned how to use a pottery wheel.”
The studio where she works today is located in her backyard. The simple, beautiful pieces she produces, under the Now Pottery brand, are utensils intended for everyday use. “It started in the first place because I wanted to make dishes for the food I love so much to cook. Slowly but surely I realized that a preoccupation with food isn’t only in order to feed the family,” she says.
The next step was to prepare meals with a theme at home. Biran, a generous hostess and talented cook, organizes dinners for which she prepares special utensils and creates and cooks the items on the menu. (See her Facebook page, Now Pottery, for details.) “This combines all my loves – the cooking, the utensils and the human dynamics of hosting people around a table,” she says.
Still life comes alive
A month ago she dedicated a meal at her home to Clara Peeters. Biran created bowls, plates, and special salt cellars modeled after utensils in Peeters’ paintings. On a huge refectory table were various kinds of baked goods and other foods that looked as though they had emerged from the paintings, including chunks of Gouda and other Dutch cheeses; yellow butter; round loaves of white bread; oysters; roasted poultry; roasted artichokes (which Peeters apparently loved, and which is one of the few types of vegetables she painted); dried fruits and rich apple and pear tarts.
“The idea was that what we put on the table is a portrait – what Clara put on her table was a mirror of a period, and that’s also true of our time,” says Biran.
One of the hallmarks of Peeters’ paintings is the self-portrait – although tiny, blurry and indistinct in terms of gender – that appear as reflections on urns and vessels in her compositions. Most of her paintings are devoted to still life. There are hardly any human figures in them, except for one portrait of a woman sitting at a table full of luxury items. Scholars believe this is a self-portrait. They attribute the clumsiness of the body – the woman’s arms seem short and disproportionate to her head – and Peeters’ focus on still lifes to the fact that women at that time were inexperienced in drawing the human body. Male painters acquired anatomical knowledge by drawing a nude male model; such lessons were of course closed to women.
“I don’t believe that a woman who so brilliantly understood the anatomy of fish or birds of prey, subjects that frequently appear in her paintings, didn’t understand a woman’s anatomy,” says Arif-Galanti. “She’s so intelligent, it can’t be that only in the way she painted herself there’s such awkwardness, and that can’t be the self-image of a woman who feels comfortable in her body. In my opinion it’s self-criticism.”