Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth Century Dutch Still Life Painting

Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth Century Dutch Still Life Painting

Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth Century Dutch Still Life Painting

Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth Century Dutch Still Life Painting

Synopsis

Caterpillageis a study of seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting. It develops an interpretive approach based on the author's previous studies of portraiture, and its goal is to offer its readers a new way to think and talk about the genre of still life. The book begins with a critique of iconographic discourse and particularly of iconography's treatment ofvanitassymbolism. It goes on to argue that this treatment tends to divert attention from still life's darker meanings and from the true character of its traffic with death. Interpretations of still life that focus on the vanity of human experience and the mutability of life minimize the impact made by the representation of such voracious pillagers of plant life as insects, snails, and caterpillars. The message sent by still life's preoccupation with these small-scale predators is not merelyvanitas. It israpacitas. Caterpillagealso explores the impact of this message on the meaning of the genre's French name. We use the conventional term nature morte('dead nature') without giving any thought to how misleading it is. Because so many portrayals of still life involve cut flowers, which, although still in bloom, are dying, it would be more accurate to name the genrenature mourant. The subjects of still life are plants that arestill living, plants that are dying but not yet dead.

Excerpt

Ever since its emergence at the turn of the seventeenth century, the aesthetic body of Dutch still-life painting has been hamstrung by iconography. Viewed through the magnific lens of Brittanica Online, iconography is “the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. The term can also refer to the artist’s use of this imagery in a particular work.” The Wikipedian etymology gets us closer to the problem: “The word iconography literally means ‘image writing,’ and comes from the Greek eikon (image) and graphein (to write).” Iconography, then, is the practice of “writing” on images and reading them as texts.

In iconographical discourse, the text most frequently inscribed in or on still-life painting is said to be the vanitas. “A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent.” This definition may be shopworn, but it’s accurate as far as it goes. Vanitas embraces both senses of the term vainness: futility and conceit. It is the vanity of being mortal, the vanity of failing to be art, the stupid hope that art can conquer death.

A more interesting account of the vanitas as a cultural attitude or structure of thought lurks in the titular pun of Simon Schama’s impressive if problematic study: The Embarrassment of Riches. Schama takes issue with the thesis articulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber claimed that the Protestant ethic gave aid and comfort to capitalism . . .

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