Cleaning the Eye: Still Lives everywhere!

One of the nice things about traveling is that somehow it cleans your “eye palette”. By visiting a new place and adjusting your vision to new images, signs and symbols, you are also more open to new images or to see in a different manner. This time I am in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, doing some teaching with the School of Governance and working with the Green Office and enjoying the city. Normally I travel with my husband or with colleagues, but this time I found myself on my own (which I truly like too!)… To be on my own makes me also more aware of the streets and the places, so I don’t get lost. Wandering around the city, I got in this lovely cafe called Stan&Co, a beautifully designed and inviting place.


The style of decoration is “industrial chic” and this is a spacious cafe, with trendy use of lettering and some comfy chairs with magazines.


“Live the Good Life” at Stan & Co. Utrecht.

One of the chairs was fully occupied by a fluffy cat that confirmed me that this was the place to be in Utrecht!


I’ve been thinking about doing some ” still life” paintings and I encouraged my dear pen pal Donna Ladkin to explore this type of painting together, as part of our creative partnership. The idea came because in recent days, I watched a BBC Four program about Still Life: Apples, Pears and Paint, and it was a refreshing reminder of the history and importance of still life in western art. It trace back the depiction of simple , yet meaningful, things like fruits or flowers, starting with Caravaggio’s bowl of fruits, that influenced Flemish painters and started a complete new genre in western painting.


The genre of the “Still Life” reached its height with the Golden Age of Dutch painting, coinciding with the economic growth of the Netherlands due to their commercial routes across the Globe. In a very short space of time, great fortunes were made, and the way in which this new materialism was expressed was through paintings.

“Life in Dutch society was very different [than other parts of seventeenth century
Europe], for the Republic was the entrepot of world trade, with
evidence of ships and the sea everywhere … [I]t was a society in which no
one could live without continually sensing the interaction of land and sea,
town and country, one town with the next, soldiers and seamen with
burghers, the exotic with the mundane, and the foreign with the local. Art, by
encompassing all of this, and reflecting it on everyone’s walls, and in every
tavern and public building, made explicit, and heightened awareness of, what
everyone saw and felt.”

Jonathon Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806 (New
York: Oxford University Press 1998). p. 563

Flowers, birds, fruits from all over the planet were symbols of great status, and silverware and ceramics also show off the wealth of families and traders.  For instance, in this painting by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682 – 1749) Still life with Flowers and Fruits, really shows off the richness of products available for those who can afford it. This example also reflects the different strands that made possible this image: the commercial routes, Van Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope, the context of the protestant religion, and the tradition of painters. Indeed, one cannot understand a painting without referring to the myriad of socio-cultural and political aspects present at a particular historical period.

So, it is rather lucky that I had to visit the land of Still Life just after watching this program. Utrecht museum has few exemplars of Still Life and the city itself offers some nice visions and arrangements in the very particular dutch aesthetic.
Still life in the streets of Utrecht. Self portrait with Charlotte Bonner

An essential part of walking around is to carry my sketchbook, it is a great company when I’m on my own, and it is a permanent guest in our holidays.  As Manet has put it:

“There is only one true thing:
instantly paint what you see.
When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
When you haven’t, you begin again.
All the rest is humbug.”
And it’s true! Sitting there in that lovely coffee-shop, I suddenly realised that [there are] “still lives” everywhere. A single arrangement of fruits or cheese is already an still life; flowers and bowls, are still life; or simply a coffee table arrangement already can tell us a lot on the still life!
My drawings started to appear and it was not difficult then to be more receptive to many other arrangements/tableaux and still lives all around the city: shops, restaurants, tea houses, markets, windows… offering hundred of motifs for still life.
Still life Stan & Co (Utrecht)
The cat is still (a)live! Utrecht, 2014

I truly love to sketch around, it is a great company and it also allows time for “drawing letters” and to imagine and envisioning… can we also say “endrawing” as the process of reflective drawing.

Letter to Heather
Further, it is possible to think on the beautiful filmography of Peter Greenaway and his “still life” inspired films: The Cook, His Wife, the thief and his lover; or A Zed and Two Noughts, which explicitly uses the imagery of Dutch still life.  And this combination of cooking, still life and films, is magnificently connected to my visit to my friend Pinar Coskun who is starting a new bio-vegan bistro very near to Central Station in Rotterdam. Located in an old train restaurant wagon, the idea of Gare Du Nord is to “start a journey”, a trip to the senses offering healthy, delish food. “Good food that will not cost the Earth”, as it is a combination of vegan (delicious) food and sustainable practices at affordable prices.
Can’t wait to for its opening on the 21st of March/2014… It is so inspiring, I drew some sketches in the very spot!
I’ve known Pinar’s exquisite cuisine for many years and this is the continuation of her award winning project Kook Met Mij Mee (Cook alongside with me), an inspiring educational initiative combining teaching how to cook to children in the city, with sustainable practices, urban gardens and tasty healthy food! I enjoyed Pinar and her husband Theo’s hospitality, they really spoiled me and I am so grateful for their love and friendship!
And with this, I resume my Blogging, after some busy days but visually/emotionally and “lekkery” rewarding!

4 thoughts on “Cleaning the Eye: Still Lives everywhere!

  1. What a great post. I saw that programme too as you know. Worth paying the licence fee for on its own. I love your drawings – so free and so uniquely yours. Great blog – great inspiration.

  2. Pingback: Art Nest Spring Exhibition | beatriz acevedo art

  3. Pingback: My Next exhibition: Frida and Me. F, for Femininity | beatriz acevedo art

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