Truth to Nature: Genre, Portrait and Still Life in the Netherlands, 1600–1700
17th-century painters in the North and South Netherlands are often praised for recording the minutiae of everyday life in images so precisely detailed they appear almost photographic. Whether a well-dressed young boy or an aged duck, a tavern brawl, or simply a shaft of light penetrating a darkened room, virtually any subject was deemed worthy of an artist’s attention.
It is often thought that these scenes represent a faithful record of everyday life in the 17th century. Yet few of these paintings are simple transcriptions of nature, and many are far more complex than they first appear. Painted still lifes may at first seem like a haphazard arrangement of random objects, but many contain coded reminders of transience and the inevitability of death. Scenes of everyday life (genre scenes) often disguise moralising messages, encouraging viewers to reflect on these concerns in their own lives. Even portraits are carefully staged, defining for posterity their subjects’ likeness and social identity.