Pieter Claesz (born 1597 – died January 1, 1661) is an outstanding artist of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, the founder of the famous Haarlem school of still life. In the paintings of the great Dutchman, light is an independent character: a certain color scale, usually brownish-golden, greenish or silvery-gray, gives the composition a mysterious, almost mystical harmony. Peter Claesz became the founder of the tonal (monochrome) still life. He was the first to appreciate the role of a single tone in color, connecting objects and the air into one whole.
Pieter Claesz also worked in the darker, metaphorical vanitas genre common in Dutch Baroque painting.
Biography of Pieter Claesz
Peter Claes, sometimes added to his name with “van Haarlem”, was born around 1597 in Berchem, Belgium (according to other sources, in 1596 or 1598 in Burgsteinfurt, Westphalia (now Steinfurt, Germany)) into a Dutch family. Almost nothing is known about the childhood years of the genius.
After settling in Haarlem, the twenty-year-old boy joined the Guild of St. Luke and began his career as an artist. Then, in 1617, the young man got married, and in 1620 he became a father for the first time. His son later gained fame in art as a landscape painter, and his grandson also followed in the footsteps of his grandfather. After the death of his wife, he remarried, in this union he had two daughters.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Haarlem was the most important center of the visual arts, which played a huge role in the formation of a new genre – still life, and Peter Claes was one of the best in it. Perhaps the teacher of the young talent was Floris van Dyck.
The work of Peter Claes is usually divided into three periods, each with its own style. The first attempts at pen date back to 1621-1622. In them one can still feel the student’s uncertainty, orientation towards recognized models.
Until about 1625, his paintings depicted the laid tables (“breakfasts”), the work was done in a fresh, clear color. The objects are still isolated from each other and little connected, but already shifted from the center to the edge of the table to bring them closer to the viewer and give the composition depth – and this is already a direct allusion to the future Peter Claes.
Between 1625 and 1640, the painter gradually reduced the number of objects, often limiting himself to, for example, a glass, a plate, a simple herring, or a bun. In the works of the 1630s, the artist already appears before us as a subtle, self-sufficient master. Between 1630 and 1640, the color palette became monochrome, muted. At one time, Peter Claesz, under the influence of the Utrecht caravaggist masters, was fond of depicting artificial light. He painted a candle flame reflected in a glass, although he considered Utrecht still lifes pompous and unnatural.
After 1640, the artist returned dramatic colors to his paintings.
Flowers, fruits, birds, game, graceful glass began to appear in his paintings. His later works inspired the likes of Jan Davidsz de Heem, Abraham Van Beyeren and Willem Kalf, who excelled in the genre of “sumptuous” still life. And this is despite the fact that Peter Claes himself never used aristocratic objects and polished finishes in his compositions.
The work “Breakfast”, exhibited at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, is a fine example of a genuine, mature Pieter Claes. The still life, full of special noble simplicity, is sustained in calm gray-brown tones.
Over time, the artist’s painting style becomes more and more colorful, and the composition – more direct. Using the simplest techniques, he turned an ordinary meal into an important event. Subtle variations of similar monochrome hues have become more pronounced. In later paintings, leaves and vines painted by Roelof Koets are sometimes found.
Pieter Claesz continued to write until his death in late 1660.
The artist was buried on January 1, 1661. His works are kept in the collections of the best art museums in the world.
In all of Haarlem, only Willem Claesz (Claeszoon) Heda, friend and colleague of Peter Claes, could match him in professionalism. Minister Samuel Ampzing listed the works of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claes Heda in Praise to the City of Haarlem in 1628. Their names ended up next to each other in the galaxy of “small Dutchmen” who continued the traditions of the masters of the Renaissance.
The Dutch still life school fell into relative oblivion in the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the French art critic Théophile Thor-Burger rediscovered it. Then Peter Claesz again received the attention that he undoubtedly deserved.