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Roses, lilies, an iris and other flowers in an earthenware vase, with a pot of carnations and a butterfly on a ledge

Roses, lilies, an iris and other flowers in an earthenware vase, with a pot of carnations and a butterfly on a ledge
signed and dated 'CLARA P. Ao 1612' (lower left)
oil on panel
25 7⁄8 x 19 3⁄4 in. (65.7 x 50.2 cm.)
Emil Glükstadt, Copenhagen; (†), Winkel & Magnussen, 6 June 1924, lot 703, where acquired by the following,
V. Hansen, Denmark, and by descent to,
Mrs. Agnethe Jacobsen, Copenhagen, by 1960, from whom acquired by,
Private collection, Copenhagen, and by whom donated to,
The Christian Help Foundation; their sale, Sotheby's, London, 6 December 1995, lot 60, where acquired by the present owner.
P. Gammelbo, Dutch Still-life painting from the 16th to 18th Centuries in Danish collections, Copenhagen, 1960, pp. 30-31, no. 28.
A.S. Harris and L. Nochlin, Women Artists 1550-1950, New York, 1978, p. 132.
M.L. Hairs, The Flemish Flower Painters of the XVIIth Century, Brussels, 1986, p. 352.
P.H. Decoteau, Clara Peeters 1594-c. 1640 and the Development of Still-life painting in Northern Europe, Lingen, 1992, p. 22-30, 179, no. 8, fig. 8.
Copenhagen, Kunstforeningens udstilling af Hollandske og flamske stillben fra 1600-tallet, 1965, no. 67.

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John Hawley
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Lot Essay

Clara Peeters (fig. 1) belonged to the first generation of European artists to specialize in still life painting and was one of its most original practitioners in the seventeenth-century Lowlands. Her earliest dated painting appears within six years of the first known food and flower still life paintings in northern Europe. She was, in all likelihood, also the first artist in Europe to paint a fish still life (1611; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), which would become something of a specialty for her. Similarly, it seems she inaugurated the tradition of self-advertising by discreetly including her portrait reflected in the displayed objects in a number of her works.

Despite her central position in the development of still life painting in the Lowlands, biographical details remain scarce and fewer than forty signed paintings by her are known today. Neither her place nor date of birth is documented, though it is safe to conclude that she worked chiefly in or around Antwerp. A 1635 inventory of an anonymous Amsterdam collection describes ‘a sugar banquet painted in 1608 by a woman Claer Pieters from Antwerp’; at least six of her copper and panel supports bear maker’s marks from the city; and at least three paintings include the same ornate silver knife inscribed with her name and the silver mark from the city (see A. Vergara, ‘Reflections of Art and Culture in the Paintings of Clara Peeters’, in The Art of Clara Peeters, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp and Madrid, 2016, p. 13).

Equally unknown is when (and whether) she joined the city’s painters guild. Women were not specifically forbidden from joining Antwerp’s guild, though in practice comparatively few did. Catharina van Hemessen (1527/28-1560), daughter of the renowned Antwerp painter Jan van Hemessen, is the earliest known female artist active in Antwerp. A second local painter’s daughter was registered in the guild in 1575, with a third in 1602 and two more in 1605 (see A. Vergara, op. cit., pp. 21, 45, note 5). That Peeters’ name does not appear among the extant records should not be taken as an indication that she was not a member of the guild. As Pamela Hibbs Decoteau pointed out when addressing this issue, the guild lists in Antwerp are missing for the critical years between 1607 and 1628, a period that entirely encompasses Peeters’ known activity (op. cit., p. 9).

In his brief Thieme-Becker entry on Peeters, Abraham Bredius tantalizingly suggested that – much like Jan Brueghel the Elder, who traveled to Middelburg at least five times between 1596 and 1612 – Peeters was in Amsterdam in 1612 and The Hague in 1617 (see. A. Bredius, ‘Clara Peeters (Pieters)’, in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, U. Thieme and F. Becker, eds., XXVII, Leipzig, 1933, p. 7). While Decoteau was sensitive to this suggestion, noting that Peeters’ supposed trips north occurred during a period of truce with Spain when travel was not restricted (op. cit., p. 8), a number of more recent scholars have discounted this possibility. Using Bredius’ own notes, Adriaan van der Willigen and Fred G. Meijer, for example, have demonstrated that the Clara Peeters referenced in these documents was a prostitute, not a painter (see A. van der Willigen and F.G. Meijer, A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Painters Working in Oils, 1525-1725, Leiden, 2003, p. 159).

Absent any definitive documentary information about Peeters’ life, the works themselves provide the clearest evidence for reconstructing her painterly activities. Just as the marks on the reverse of several panels provide strong indications about where she worked, the eleven dated paintings allow for something of a chronology to be developed. Two early, somewhat awkwardly drawn works bear dates of 1607 and 1608 (both private collection). Four further paintings (three in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and one in a private collection), including Peeters’ earliest dated painting to include flowers (fig. 2), are dated 1611. A similar number of works, including the present painting, bear the date 1612, while a Garland of flowers with the Virgin and Child is dated 1621 (see P.H. Decoteau, op. cit., p. 33, ill. 19). The singular nature of this last dated work within the context of her oeuvre throws into question whether she remained active afterward. The general tendencies that emerge in these dated works are an ever-increasing command over the drawing of the depicted objects, an ever-lower vantage point from which they are viewed and – for her floral still lifes – greater subtlety in the rendering of flowers, which lose their ‘metallic’ quality in favor of softer, more lifelike edges.

Given the strictures on women’s activities at the time, it is perhaps not surprising that Peeters – like many of her female contemporaries – dedicated herself to the comparatively modest genre of still life painting. Unlike male artists, who from a young age learned to draw the human figure from live (male) models, Peeters and other women artists were restricted from doing so. Nevertheless, her use of reflected self-portraits in at least eight paintings unabashedly emphasizes her status as a woman painter.

The present painting, dated 1612, is quite possibly Peeters’ earliest pure flower painting and the only one to include both a vase and a pot. It was painted in a year that Decoteau has rightly described as one that ‘certainly seems to have been a peak year in Peeters’ oeuvre; one in which she developed her own independent style, surpassing those early influences from [Osias] Beert’ (op. cit., p. 21). When compared with the aforementioned painting in Madrid of only a year earlier, several key improvements are evident. While Peeters retained the then-fashionable symmetrical bouquet of flowers – no fewer than twenty-nine buds of at least eight species by Ducoteau’s count (op. cit., p. 23) – densely packed into a tall oval, her flowers have a greater naturalism in the present work than the one in Madrid. Not only do more blooms overlap one another, it is presumably the first instance of her experimenting with the depiction of flowers, including the pink rose which has fallen onto the ledge, from behind.

Peeters frequently deployed flowers and decorative objects in multiple compositions, combining them in novel ways. For example, the pewter flagon in the Madrid painting reappears in a nearly identical position in a painting in The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, while the gilt goblet also features in Peeters’ presumed self-portrait. Similarly, the iris that features at upper left in the present painting also surmounts the bouquet in a painting in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (fig. 3). The earthenware vase impressed with medallions, including one impressed with the word ‘FLORA’, appears to be unique to this painting. It has been suggested that the bust of the woman seen on the front of the vase may be intended as a self-portrait. Similar vases of different proportion and decoration can be found in at least two other works, one dated 1612 in Karlsruhe (fig. 4) and another datable to that year on stylistic grounds (sold Christie’s, London, 9 July 2003, lot 60). Peeters herself probably owned a number of the objects that recur in her paintings, while her insects and flowers may have been based on drawn studies or contemporary prints like Adriaen Collaert’s series of twenty-four plates entitled Florilegium, published by Philips Galle in Antwerp at the end of the 1580s.

Evidence indicates that Peeters enjoyed a certain degree of international critical acclaim in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to the aforementioned Amsterdam inventory of 1635 referencing a work by her, her paintings were to be found in collections in Rotterdam (1627) and Madrid (1637) in the first half of the seventeenth century. Two paintings by Peeters similarly entered the royal collection in Madrid in or before 1666, while two more were acquired for the collection by 1746 (all Museo Nacional de Prado, Madrid; see A. Vergara, op. cit., nos. 1, 2, 7 and 8). A ‘Vogel stuckie’ (Group of birds) likewise features in the 1685 inventory of Rudolphus Mensingh and his wife Agatha Coties in Haarlem, while ‘A Curious piece of Fruit, by Clara’ had made its way to London by 1702, when it appeared at a sale of the collection of the late Mr. John Smith at Exeter Exchange in the Strand on 10 November of that year. On account of the rarity of her works, paintings by Peeters seldom appeared on the market in the latter eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, like many northern still lifes in the period, generally achieved only comparatively modest sums.

In the course of the twentieth century, her reputation was resuscitated through scholarly publications, notably the pioneering catalogue raisonne by Pamela Hibbs Decoteau (1992), and key museum acquisitions. Peeters’ paintings entered the collections of, among others, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1903); The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (1939); Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe (1943); National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington (1986) and, shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2003) through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Edward W. Carter.

However, Peeters’ position as one of the leading still life painters in the seventeenth century has only fully come into focus in recent years with heightened awareness of the significant contributions made by women artists. In 2016, the first monographic exhibition devoted to Peeters’ work was jointly staged by the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. In the course of the last decade, seminal examples of her work have similarly entered the collections of the Mauritshuis, The Hague (2012); National Gallery of Art, Washington (2018) and, most recently, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2020).

Please note, this painting has been requested for the upcoming exhibition Maestras, Antiguas y Modernas, to be held at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza from 31 October 2023 through 4 February 2024.

Please also note this painting is being shown in a loaner frame. Please contact the department for further details.

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