Dining with Clara Peeters at Antwerp’s Rockox House

Rockox House Antwerp 01Antwerp has several small museums located in charming period houses. The Rockoxhuis is one of these. It is the former home of Antwerp’s mayor Nicolaas Rockox. He and his wife Adriana Perez were of rich and cultured families and became important patrons to Antwerp artists like Rubens and van Dyck.

The Rockox House

Rockox House Antwerp 02The house itself, situated right next to the home of Flemish painter Frans Snijders on Antwerp’s Keizerstraat, is worth a visit. Or rather, one should spend some time lolling in a deck chair, or at one of the tables in its small court garden. In this garden not only grow orange trees, but also an impressive collection of medicinal plants.

The museum sprawls along the four ground floor wings around this garden. Three wings on the ground floor currently show the “Gulden Cabinet” project. As Antwerp’s Royal Museum is being refurbished, a selection of its collection is on display in the Rockox House Museum.

Two ground floor rooms in the fourth wing are used for temporary exhibitions. Until the 2nd of October 2016, a small exhibition of still-lives by Clara Peeters can be found here.

Clara Peeters

Clara Peeters still-life 01Never heard of her? Neither had I. Yet many of her paintings are of extraordinary high quality. About 150 works by her remain, but roughly 50 of these are at “location unknown”. The rest can be found in private collections, as well as in famous museums throughout the world, including the Prado, Rijksmuseum, Richard Green Gallery, Poltava Art Museum and the Washington NMWA.

Clara Peeters was one of the earliest Flemish artists to experiment with and “invent” food and flower still-lives. The first room shows works by contemporaries or artists who may have influenced her. Jeremias van Winghe’s still-life for instance closely resembles still-lives by Clara Peeters.

In this room one also finds several items like the props Clara incorporated in her works, as well as a video highlighting details of Clara’s paintings. Though the paintings are interesting, they fail to dazzle like the roughly ten by Clara Peeters in the next room.

Clara Peeters still-life 02As the video illustrates, Clara cleverly used shining and reflecting Venetian glass, metal cans, stunning golden cups and other table ware as a mirror. In several of her works, a small, distorted, unrecognisable face can be detected. Clara the artist is present in these still-lives, not just because she signed her works or painted her full name on a knife.

P. Hibbs Decoteau states in her book on Clara Peeters, that hardly anything is known about this extremely talented female artist. There is no clear information about her date of birth, date of death, residence, training, patrons – or if she taught other painters. There exists a possible self-portrait, but this is not part of the Antwerp exhibition.

The Antwerp Archives have two documents, but experts are not certain these refer to Clara Peeters. If the baptism information does, then Clara was born in May 1594 in Antwerp. The second document refers to a marriage of one Clara Peeters to a Henri Joosen in 1639. Did Clara marry aged 45?

Experts also disagree which of the paintings attributed to Clara may have been her last one. Part of the problem is not just the lack of documents and records. There apparently was a near-contemporary female painter called Catherine Peeters. Is this another woman, or Clara, or perhaps a sister, or daughter?

Regardless: the still-lives exhibited at the Rockox House are stunning. During my visit, visitors harped about the life-like fish, fresh oysters, boiled shrimps and lobsters, young and old cheeses, delicious pies, fresh rolls, sparkling glasses full of red or white wines, dusty or dewy grapes and other fruits … This is an exhibition best visited with a full stomach. Admiring these still-lives is a mouth-watering experience.

Clara Peeters still-life 03Several of the paintings are from private collections, so this is a rare chance to view these. A pity the Washington “Fish and Cat” painting is not on show. On the other hand, there is the splendid “Still-life with fruit, dead birds and monkey”, as well as the slightly morbid “Still-life with peregrine and its prey” or “Still-life with sparrow-hawk, poultry, porcelain and seashells:”

The feathers of the birds, alive and dead; the plucked pigeons; the shells – everything, regardless whether it is soft or hard, shimmering or glittering – the details are astonishing and the rendering exquisite. As many of these paintings refer to the transience of life, they include flies, butterflies, a mouse, or other animals. The overall impression is of an exceptionally talented artist and a small but delicious exhibition.

Food and drink

The Rockox House lies within walking distance of other Antwerp museums like the Rubenshuis and Antwerp’s cathedral. So if you’re visiting Antwerp, it is easy to incorporate a visit to “Clara Peeters – Dinner is served! ”

The museum does not have a café, but there are plenty tea-shops, small restaurants and café’s to be found in what is Antwerp’s student neighbourhood. Close to the Borromeus church and Hendrik Conscience square one finds for instance “Just Emily” and “Lojola”.

Antwerp’s Rockoxhuis Museum: “Clara Peeters: Dinner is served!” can be visited till the 2nd of October 2016. A catalogue is available for 25 Euro.

“Clara Peeters and the development of still-life painting in northern Europe”, P. Hibbs Decoteau, Flemish Painters in the circle of the Great Masters volume 5, Luca Verlag, 1992

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