Why the Symbolic Food Still Lives of Adriaen van Utrect Matter Today

Chances are high that you’ve never heard of a pronkstilleven, 17th century artist Adriaen van Utrect’s claim to fame. The Dutch word translates to ‘opulent’ or ‘ostentatious ‘ still life, which describes the Antwerp painter’s vision precisely. However, the ripples Utrect’s symbolic food still lives left behind are evident to this day.

In the case of Adriaen van Utrect, a decadent banquet is rarely just a banquet. It’s an opportunity to balance themes, objects, and colors. A banquet can be a place where the liveliness of human interaction can coexist with the stillness of slaughtered game. And, perhaps most importantly, it can serve as a conduit for a larger message, lesson, or narrative.

As new, exotic materials flooded Antwerp’s market, van Utrect was inspired to reinvent the still life as a genre. Inspired by Italian painters such as Caravagio, he began incorporating chiaroscuro elements into warm, earthy spreads filled to the brim with food. However, these still lives weren’t ornate and abundant without reason. Van Utrect used his subjects as metaphors to convey hidden meanings.

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‘Still Life: Game, Vegetables, Fruit, Cockatoo’ by Adriaen van Utrect. As this high contrast painting illustrates, van Utrect was one of the first to marry the traditional Flemish still life with the chiaroscuro style emerging from Italy. Image sourced from Getty’s Open Content Program.

In particular, van Utrect loved to paint kitchen and market “slice of life” scenes. Aside from portraying social realities, these expansive scenes would provide ample room for details that he’d utilize to strengthen the story each painting told. Combining dynamism and motion with sumptuous, symbolic food still life, his work captured attention effortlessly.

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‘Still Life with Lovers’ by Adriaen van Utrect. This symbolic food still life pairs the sexuality of the human subjects with the bounty of produce overflowing from the table’s edges, forging a connection between gluttony and lust. © The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
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‘Fishmonger’s Stall’ by Adriaen van Utrect. On the surface, this painting may seem like a run-of-the-mill slice-of-life scene. However, the closer one looks at the image, the more detailed the narrative becomes. The woman’s provocative dress paired with the suggestive poses of the fish may hint at her background or desires. Likewise, the presence of the small boy stealing from her purse may provide a clue that the transaction taking place might be a bit malicious. Image sourced from wikimedia.  

So, how is van Utrect’s influence present today? For starters, his work became a major influence for Dutch masters such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem. And while the still life has undergone some drastic changes over the centuries, the emergence of food photography has reinvigorated interest in the styles of yesteryear. Rustic “farmhouse” food photography that reigns supreme among blogs and cookbooks draws clear parallels to Dutch and Flemish still life.

The moral of today’s vignette? Don’t write off older art, even if it seems irrelevant to to what you’re doing today. There may be something inspiring to latch onto lurking just below the surface…

Influential Food Artist of the Week

Through our influential food artist segment, we aim to highlight fascinating stories and works that defy norms and challenge audiences on what food can mean to us. Are you tired with flashy passing trends and seeking true creative inspiration? From classical painters and modern innovators, Phoode explores what happens when food collides with artistic minds. CLICK ON