How Did Clara Peeters Transform Still-Life Painting?

Clara Peeters’ biography is difficult to track down, yet she stands out as a woman painter who succeeded against the odds in the 17th century.

Jun 27, 2024By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy

clara peeters still life painting


Clara Peeters’ contribution to art history is widespread as she played a seminal role in the development of still-life painting at the beginning of the 17th century. Peeters was one of the first painters to produce refined, self-standing still-lifes featuring food, flowers, game, and fish in Flanders and the Dutch Republic. Read on to dive into the fascinating career of Clara Peeters, the famous Flemish woman artist who defied the stereotypes of her time.


Antwerp’s School of Painting in Context

Table by Clara Peeters, 1611. Source: Underpaintings Magazine; Prado Museum, Madrid


Clara Peeters was born in the 1580s or in 1594, in the aftermath of a turbulent period for the Low Countries. In 1566, the Eighty Years’ War sparked as the Dutch cities revolted against the Spanish crown. The bloodshed culminated in the 1576 Sack of Antwerp. The result of this was that the Dutch rebels united as one against the Spanish crown, and Antwerp entered a period of stagnation as it entered under the Spanish administration. Before 1576, Antwerp thrived as a prosperous hub of commerce and culture.


At the beginning of the 17th century, Antwerp emerged once again as the epicenter of luxury and commerce it once was, and painting was seen as a desirable commodity as well. In this context, the Archduke and Archduchess Albert and Isabella brandished themselves not just as political and Catholic spiritual leaders but also as generous artistic and cultural patrons. Under such auspices, starting with the 1600s, artists like Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) saw their careers flourish under the high patronage of the reformed Catholic Church and the Court of Isabella, Albert and their entourage.


The young Clara Peeters came of age in a period of generous patronage. The timing of her success is, therefore, closely connected to the larger trends in Antwerp’s society; Clara’s artistic ascent happened simultaneously with her hometown’s restoration.

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How Did Clara Peeters Become an Esteemed Still Life Painter? 

Still Life with Confectionery and Jewels, by Clara Peeters, 1607. Source: Wikipedia


Details from Clara Peeters’ life and training are difficult to uncover. However, there are a few documents that refer to her as Clara Peeters from Antwerp. While nothing is certain, it is possible that she was the daughter of Jan Peeters and that she was baptized on May 15, 1594. Since both her first and last names were very common in Antwerp, it is also challenging to determine whether the same Clara Peeters married Henricus Joosen in the church of St. Walburga on May 31, 1639.


As mentioned, the lack of archival documents leaves art historians to speculate on the early life and training of Clara Peeters. For example, some argue that she made her first dated painting when she was 12 or 13 years old (Vergara,?; Decoteau, 1992). However, this is problematic as that was the age around which pupils usually started their artistic training. This is but one example of the uncertainties that historians face when studying Peeters. A similar uncertainty is that of her influences, with a possible candidate being Osias Beert (1580-1624), although his still-life paintings are visibly less masterful. Therefore, as of now, it is very challenging to pinpoint Clara’s training and artistic formation.


Hidden Self-Portraits of Clara Peeters 

Portrait of a woman, attributed to Clara Peeters, ca. 1613-1620. Source: Wikimedia, whereabouts unknown.


One of Clara Peeters’ paintings, portraying a woman next to a vanitas still life, is often regarded as a self-portrait. This picture is a telling account of Clara’s shortcomings as a draughtswoman. What leads some art historians to suggest she trained individually is the lack of supporting evidence connecting her to male relatives or peers who practiced painting. Anatomical study was a difficult domain for early modern women artists.


Since mastery in anatomical representation entailed the study of the body (often male) and customs deemed it inappropriate for women to attend sessions with a model, women artists could only gain knowledge through the study of sculptures, which meant that their mastery of male anatomy would be less developed than those of their male colleagues.

Madonna of Canon Georg van Der Pale by Jan van Eyck, 1436. Source: The author


Despite this shortcoming, she left her mark in a lot of creative ways. In the tradition of Jan van Eyck’s ciphered signature on the wall in the Arnolfini portrait, Peeters integrated her name in ingenious manners, either by signing her name on objects or by depicting herself on reflexive surfaces. Her painted self-portraits in Still Life with Flowers and Goblets from 1612 and Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels from 1615 (discussed below) could have also been inspired by Eyck’s Madonna of Canon van der Paele or his self-portrait in the mirror of the Arnolfini Portrait composition. Clara takes Van Eyck’s self-reflections to a different dimension: in the 1612 still-life, she portrays herself in the act of painting, holding brushes and a palette.


More on Clara Peeters’ Visual Riddles

Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds, and Pretzels by Clara Peeters, 1615. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague


In Still Life with Cheeses, a rich yet frugal and modest display is put together on the canvas.


At a quick glance, the viewer can only see the imposing blocks of Dutch cheese, pretzels, almonds, and Venetian glass. However, upon closer look, it becomes evident that Clara added a witty self-portrait on the lid of the bottle that shows the silhouette of a woman. Her name is cleverly signed on the handle of the wedding knife, reading Clara Peeters. Many artists found ways to integrate their self-portraits into their work, however, Clara was the first to include such an element in a still-life painting. More so, she was the only one who repeatedly did it, contributing to her style.


Clara Peeters’ choice to create still-life paintings was, in a way, a bold move. The still-life market didn’t appeal, in general, to the biggest patrons. The favored genre of the time was that of historical paintings, enjoyed by the richest clients and executed by top (male) artists. As the Low Countries prospered after the tumults of the war, Peeters definitely sensed a commercial potential that the art market held. Namely, the growing accessibility of luxury items such as art for the blossoming middle class.


However, that is not to say that still-life paintings were not enjoyed in certain cases by the elite clients, as many paintings with hunting game are usually found in the collections of princes across Europe. In Peeters’ case, she made use of a fluid and growing market for the still-life genre that enabled her to sell her paintings on the art market to interested passersby. On the other hand, she also remained open to commissions, which allowed her to get into contact with patrons or simply form long-term clients who would buy her work regularly.


Defining the Still-Life Genre

Still Life of Fish and Cat, by Clara Peeters, after 1620. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington


As a pioneer of this genre, Clara Peeters’ contribution played a crucial role in establishing still life as a distinct art form. When she began making her art, the Dutch and Flemish regions did not yet have a specific term to describe this style. The term still-life or stilleven would only be coined around the middle of the 17th century. Clara specialized in painting flower pieces, breakfast pieces, banquets, vanitas, and kitchen scenes, but she gave them a personal spin. Her still-lifes stand out for both technical and iconographical reasons. Peeters excelled in capturing the texture and the form of any object that she depicted. Moreover, her paintings are defined by the gracious balance between her dark, austere backgrounds and the contrasting glowing items.


Brass candle holders, glass goblets, and glistening plates stand out on the unadorned tables. Peeters was the first painter to combine elements from different kinds of still-lifes. In fact, it is believed that she invented still-life works showing fish and seafood. Her depictions of tableware and foods also give us a glimpse into class divisions, trading history, and other social aspects of the time. By representing austere food in a luscious and expensive painting, she was challenging the viewer to contemplate the role that food plays in our existence, about having or not having food. Moreover, by depicting foreign objects that began appearing on the market through the international trade the Dutch were making, she was noting a reality: that of slavery and colonialism. After all, the Dutch East Indies Company played a big role in creating Dutch colonies and enslaving natives during the early modern period.


Since Antwerp’s cultural and commercial environment was restored after the Twelve Year Truce in 1609, merchants could once more trade in an abundance of commodities. They brought animals, plants, spices, precious woods, and textiles to be sold to the local elite and, at the same time, responded to the booming European collecting culture. Paintings by Clara Peeters and her contemporaries lavishly showcase Antwerp’s international import industry. However, they render a Eurocentric and colonialist standpoint. When not interpreted as celebratory displays of colonial booty, the reverse interpretation emphatically points to the Transatlantic trade of slaves, the exploitation of indigenous cultures, and the immense human cost of Europe’s ascend.


What Can We Learn From Clara’s Still-Lifes?

Still-Life with Flowers and Goblets by Clara Peeters, 1612. Source: Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe


With the exception of her presumed self-portrait, and unlike other artists who specialized in still-life painting, Peeters did not put a big emphasis on complicated allegorical elements in her still-life works. Instead, most of the time, she used simple elements that were masterfully executed to make her point. On one hand, her paintings are artful representations of various objects and animal species; on the other, any still-life made by Clara can be read as a book about the society she lived and worked in.


In Still-Life with Flowers and Gold Cups of Honour, Peeters depicts a range of valuable things. We see gold coins, two baroque gilded goblets, a Chinese celadon bowl, shells, a golden chain, and a bouquet of rare flowers. These objects were staples of European Wunderkammers, or cabinets of curiosities, starting in the 1550s. Clara, therefore, could have two kinds of audiences in mind when making such a still-life: a client who could not afford to have a cabinet of curiosities or someone who already had a knack for collecting such things.


The Meaning of Food

Still-Life with Artichoke, Cheese and Cherries by Clara Peeters, ca. 1625. Source: LACMA, Los Angeles


Similarly, Clara’s food pieces can answer many questions about eating practices, etiquette, and the division of social classes. Food was used as a sign of distinction in the cities and courts of Europe. Dining was a form of art where extravagant foods were paired with diligently-picked cups. Since one’s status could be persuasively expressed on a table, there were clear divisions. Clara’s paintings are a valuable visual source of the banqueting customs of her era.


Cherries, marzipan, cheeses, biscuits, olives, meat pies, and all sorts of fish were the talk of the town in Antwerp. All of Clara Peeters’ paintings show such foods. Cheese stacks and butter, which Clara Peeters often depicted, were, in fact, a staple product of both the Southern and Northern provinces. Its production was not only meant to supply the local population but it was also exported to other countries. Clara’s breakfast pieces are, therefore, not just imaginary creations. In the 17th century, it was a custom to eat bread, butter, and cheese for breakfast. These things were also served after dinner as a finishing course.


The Legacy of Clara Peeters 

Still-Life with Fish, by Clara Peeters, ca. 1612-1621, Source: KMSKA, Antwerp


Clara Peeters had more than a successful career. While we only know about around forty of her works today, her influence goes far and wide. As one of the first practitioners of still-life pictures, she had plenty of space for innovation. The fact that she became an accomplished painter is proved by the development of the “Clara Peeters’ school” during her lifetime. While the possibility of a workshop is very plausible for such a successful painter, the existence of countless variations painted in her manner proves that many collectors were interested in realistic depictions of various foods and flowers.


Her influence extended far beyond Antwerp and transcended the Low Countries, reaching Germany. Peeters’ distinctive small format, her compact compositions, and her restrained color palette greatly impacted other Netherlandish artists like Nicolaes Gillis (1595-1632) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1661). Clara Peeters’ enduring popularity is evident. Just like that of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), as her appeal has not diminished over the centuries. On the contrary, it continues to grow as she attracts the attention of more scholars and visitors alike.


Clara Peeters was a skilled artist who helped popularise the emerging still-life genre, being one of the first women artists to contribute to its spreading. Through her creativity and skill, she managed to put her mark on Dutch and Flemish early modern art, influencing the artists that followed. Thus, Peeters stands as one of the key elements needed to understand the evolution of this fascinating genre.

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By Anisia IacobMA Art History, MA in PhilosophyAnisia Iacob holds an MA in both Art History and Philosophy at Leiden University. She holds a BA in Art History where she focused on 17th century Dutch vanitas painting and a BA in Philosophy where she researched fashion and embodied cognition. With a keen interest in anything and everything, her research interest goes from history to neuroscience, attesting to her curious personality. Besides studies, she works as a contributing writer. Anisia looks forward to finishing her two MAs and starting a PhD in Philosophy.