Alsace is a region with French and German cultural influences. Despite this, it also retains an identity of its own. In this mixed cultural climate, early modern artistic production was influenced by this and the political developments of medieval and modern Europe.
This article focuses on some of the famous still-life artists who worked in Alsace and were influenced by the Dutch artistic trends of the 17th century, in order to showcase the region’s cultural diversity and highlight the great popularity of the still-life genre as it spread from Dutch artistic circles to all over Europe. Popular from ancient up to contemporary times, the still-life genre in Alsace is a testament to the cultural diversity of the region. Thus, of note are the several artists of German or Dutch origin who greatly influenced still-life painting in Alsace.
Being a Still-Life Artist in Alsace: A Place of Mixed Influences
Alsace is a diverse cultural region in eastern France, bordering Germany and Switzerland. Despite this, the region has a strong cultural identity with its own dialect, Alsatian, although nowadays hardly spoken. The region’s history is marked by its placement between these spheres of influence, as Alsace was claimed several times by both France and Germany throughout its history. Due to its western positioning, the region was also part of most major European conflicts. This, of course, shaped its history.
An event that greatly marked the history of Alsace, as well as that of European states more generally, was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). After the war ended, the region entered under a decidedly French influence as it was annexed in 1648 by the country. This was an important stepping stone in its history because, up until that moment, it was seen as a German region, although Alsatian culture comprises more than just binary Franco-German influences. Because of this German heritage, Alsace was also quick to adopt the Reformation in the 16th century. This supported its relationships with other Protestant states, encouraging cultural and economic exchanges with states like the Dutch Republic, for example.
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Later, the region was annexed by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then returned to France definitively after the Second World War, with a brief stint under French rule between the two World Wars.
Still-Life Painting in Europe
The still-life genre has permeated European art production since ancient times and still thrives today as a popular and easily-recognizable style. The earliest examples of still-lifes can be found in Roman villas in the form of paintings of mosaics depicting meal pieces. A still-life painting is often characterized by the absence of human presence. The work depicts an arrangement of objects of a diverse nature in a given setting, usually an interior. This genre is popular both for its pleasant look and its ability to convey symbolic messages, like that of the vanitas theme.
Still-life paintings enjoyed popularity throughout the centuries, as their depictions are easily understood, approachable, and decorative. Due to these reasons, they quickly became popular with buyers as they were relatable to both middle-class merchants and aristocrats. However, the early modern period throughout Europe saw a significant increase in the popularity of such pieces. Vast collections of kings and princes began to include still-life paintings, and demand for the still-life genre was huge in the art market. In this context, the production of still-life paintings also became notable in Alsace, with many still-life artists emerging.
1. Sebastian Stoskopff: The Most Famous Alsatian Still-Life Artist
Sebastian Stoskopff (1597-1657) was an Alsatian artist who is now recognized as one of the most important still-life artists of Germanic origin. His works, rediscovered in the first half of the 20th century, are now emblematic of the German depiction of this genre from the early modern period. Stoskopff’s paintings are characterized by the presence of glasses and cups, depicted very skilfully. The glass or shiny metal of the cups allows the artist to render beautiful plays of light, enhancing the hyper-realism characteristic of these works.
Beyond being a still-life artist, some of Stoskopff’s works also have a vanitas quality to them, as they convey messages of existential ephemerality through the objects’ placement and choice. For example, a richly decorated glass cup can be viewed both as an expensive item that is hard to acquire but also as a very frail one–it might break at any given moment. This can be read as a double metaphor for human life. The traditional depiction of a skull is another way of depicting the vanitas message; one works hard to gather riches that will remain behind while our life is frail and may end at any given time.
A Closer Look at Stoskopff’s Masterpieces
In continuing with the vanitas theme, two works of Stoskopff’s deserve a closer inspection. The first one is Summer or the Five Senses, depicted in the section above, which depicts a room with a rich arrangement of flowers, fruits, musical instruments, and globes. What is peculiar about this painting is the fact that it features a human figure, a pale woman carrying a basket of fruits, but also a strange opening on the right side that lets the viewer see outside the room, possibly in the house’s garden. The title links two other popular medieval themes: the passing of the seasons and the five senses. The vanitas quality can be seen in the multiple allusions to the passing of time. The summer will fade and be followed by autumn, the fruits and flowers will try, and the lady will age.
A more direct link with vanity is present in the aptly-named Great Vanity, shown above, a painting depicting all the classical symbolic elements of the vanitas. Knowledge, earthly powers and offices, pleasures, and riches are symbolized by the various objects which make up the still-life arrangement. Sitting in the middle of all the symbols of power and pleasure, the skull makes the meaning very clear. The message is yet the same: all earthly things stay here, in this world, while human existence is more complex. According to Christian doctrine, human souls are anything but material and earthly.
2. & 3. Daniel & Isaac Soreau: The Dutch Influence on Alsatian Still-Life
Iconic artists like Stokopff were directly influenced and trained under German, French, or Dutch artists, nearly all of whom were active in the Netherlands, the center of still-life production at the time. Stoskopff, for example, studied under still-life artist Daniel Soreau, who was from Hanau but also worked in the Netherlands. After his death, Stoskopff took over Soreau’s workshop. Although there aren’t many surviving paintings of Daniel Soreau, we do know that his son, Isaac Soreau, was a colleague of Stoskopff and also painted still-lifes. Therefore, one can identify the workshop of Daniel Soreau as a hub for the transmission of Dutch-style still-life paintings, where young Alsatian, German, or French artists were trained in the craft.
Thus, the Soreau’s activity and influence provide an important example of how still-life artists connected, collaborated, and influenced one another all around Europe. The Soreau family is a prime example especially of how Dutch still-life painting influenced artists active in Alsace.
The style of Isaac Soreau as a still-life artist is very similar to that of his father. He painted various depictions of either flower bouquets or fruit baskets that showcase his mastery of detail and a Dutch influence. While a vanitas element is harder to find in his surviving works, he is one of the most talented still-life artists of the Alsace region, despite not being able to rival Stoskopff, his colleague. On the other hand, the case of the Soreau workshop offers a glimpse into the influences that were spreading in the area as well as the modes of transmission that worked in Alsace during the 17th century.
4. Joan Walter: A Dutch Still-Life Artist in Alsace
Joan Walter (1610-1679) was an artist of Dutch descent who worked and lived in various places. Among them, he was active in Alsace in cities such as Strasbourg, where he also died. Despite not many of his works surviving today, from the dozen that we know, it’s clear that he was a versatile artist who did portraits and military paintings but was also a good still-life artist. As a still-life artist, Walter worked with oil to illustrate bouquets of flowers or just flower and fruit arrangements.
One of his known still-life paintings, Bouquet of Flowers in Delft Blue Vase, combines the Dutch influence of his heritage directly with the presence of the famous Delft Blue porcelain. However, the Dutch influence is also visible in the bouquet arrangement and its detailed execution. On the other hand, his work is reminiscent of still-life artist Isaac Soreau. This may be seen as a sign attesting to the regional influence of the areas where he worked during his lifetime. Nonetheless, despite not being Alsatian by birth, Walter contributed greatly to the artistic community in Strasbourg and contributed to the still-life painting heritage that survives today.
5. Christian Wehrlin: A New Wave of Artists
The influence of Dutch still-life artists was still present in Alsace even in the 18th century, when interest in the genre had lowered elsewhere in Europe and other artists began to explore new styles and genres. Such an example is that of the still-life artist Christian Wehrlin (active 1750-1774), who specialized in hunting game still-life paintings. His attention to detail is certainly comparable to that of Stoskopff, as the paintings have a hyper-realism to them. Although not many of his paintings survive or are known today, the few that do showcase a strong and mature style with a clear and assured brushstroke.
An excellent painting from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg, Game Piece with Hare, Poultry, and Fruit, mixes different types of textures in one painting. The soft and smooth surface of fruits is contrasted with the fluff of the fur and the shiny aspect of fresh meat. What everything depicted here has in common is, of course, the perishable nature of matter. One can only imagine that most of his paintings were done in a similar manner. Paintings with game were especially popular among princes and nobles, who usually purchased them to decorate their hunting estates.
All in all, Alsace is an interesting region for the still-life artist of early modern Europe as it provides a place of diverse influence and inspiration. Positioned closely to the Netherlands, Alsace was receptive to the Dutch art trends of the time. However, being under French and German domination allowed artists from both cultural spaces to mingle and share ideas. Although many of the still-life artists we see today in Alsatian museums are labeled as anonymous, the artists whose identity we know of attest to a fascinating cultural flourishing in the 17th and 18th centuries.
RKD (2017-2018) Gerson Digital: Germany I. “6.1 Strassbourg and Württemberg”. Retrieved from https://gersongermany.rkdstudies.nl/6-southern-germany/61-strasbourg-and-w%C3%BCrttemberg/
MUSÉES DE LA VILLE DE STRASBOURG (2019) Museum of Fine Arts Strasbourg. Retrieved from https://en.musees.strasbourg.eu/museum-of-fine-arts