Still Life with Crab, Shrimps and Lobster, c. 1635–1640
Clara Peeters, Flemish, 1594–after 1657
Oil on wood
27 7/8 × 42 7/8 in. (70.8 × 108.9 cm)
Gift of the Enthoven Foundation
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Globalization through Art
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Columbian Exchange
Connecting to the Work of Art
This painting by Flemish artist Clara Peeters depicts a series of food items carefully arranged on a linen-covered table. Enticing the senses of taste, smell, sight, and touch, each item is singled out on an individual plate to showcase its unique visual and culinary appeal. The artist used a muted palette of earthy tones to emphasize the realism of the scene. Notice the way the loaf of bread looks like it has been freshly baked, with its crisp crust; the way the eggshells are speckled with gray paint to imitate the variety among different eggs; or how the lobster has been painted with impeccable realism, down to the finest detail of the eyes, shell, flesh, and antennae.
This painting showcases Peteers' artistic skills and ability to convey the realism of textures and surfaces of the food, vessels, and textiles. The effects of the light, which cast a luminous presence on the entire scene, heighten the sense of drama and the sumptuousness of the display. The artist also uses perspective to create the illusion of depth. Look at the silver plate in the front that looks like as if it is protruding from the table’s edge. Peeters was intrigued by light, and her depictions of coins, goblets, and other items made of metal demonstrate her high skill in painting light.
Balance is achieved in this painting through the careful placement of the objects. Despite the assemblage of diverse items, there is a sense of order both vertically and horizontally: items are placed in rows and the stack of meat adds height, leading the eye to the back of the canvas. The vessels that contain liquid ground the scene on each side of the painting. The artist also uses compositional lines to guide the viewer’s gaze around the painting. Diagonal lines from the eggs, plate of shrimps, stand of butter, and jug of wine lead the eye from one corner of the canvas to the other. Similarly, horizontal lines are used to attract attention across the canvas with the bread in the front row, the fish in the second, and the meats in the last row.
One unusual detail in this thinly-painted still-life is the prominent representation on the damask cloth of the biblical story of the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, seen as a premonition of the Crucifixion, God's sacrifice of Christ. This "painting within a painting" gives the laid table a special meaning as an offering. The bread covered with a cloth is the usual ingredient for a Sabbath meal (Sabbath being the seventh day in the Genesis creation narrative, set aside as a day of rest), during which it is broken and eaten with some salt. Bread, the Christian symbol of Christ's body, and wine are the traditional ingredients of the Last Supper. The painting also shows foods that are allowed or recommended during the Lenten fast, a tradition that precedes and serves to prepare Christians for Easter Sunday through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial.
Still-lifes like this one were a great opportunity for artists to display their skills in painting textures and surfaces in great detail and with realistic light effects. This painting genre rose in popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in the Netherlands, as a result of an increasing demand for secular subjects from the new wealthy Protestant class, an aspect of the prolonged effects of the Reformation. It is worth noting that most still-lifes of this period had a moralistic message, usually concerning the shortness and impermanence of life. This type of work is known as a vanitas. Typically, paintings with a theme of vanitas make use of symbols—such as human skulls, mirrors, and broken pottery—to convey moral messages about life, death, and the transience of earthly pleasures and achievements.
- Notice the many items in this painting that have reflective surfaces. How did the artist convey the various textures in this?
- How does the variety of texture showcase the artist’s skills?
- Is the scene a normal dinner for everyday, or some type of feast? Explain your answer.
- Notice the scene on the damask cloth of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. This is probably intended to give the laid table a special meaning, as an offering. How does this “painting within a painting” change your interpretation?
- Do you see this work as a mood of celebration, or sobriety? Explain your answer.
- How would this work be different if figures were included around the table? How would the meaning of the painting change?
- Describe how the objects are arranged on the table. Do you think this was pre-planned? Why? Why not?
- Discuss how the artist achieves balance within the work.
- Some symbolic meaning associated with the lobster includes: protection, rejuvenation, transformation, and emotional growth. How do these meanings impact this work?
- What observations can you make about the way the artist uses different techniques to convey so many diverse textures? Look at the quail eggs, the cured meat, the glass, the metal ware, and the bread, and notice the realism of the work.
- Given that the style of this painting is considered “Realism,” do you agree that the work is painted in a truthful way, one that avoids artificiality? Explain.
Connecting to the Classroom
- Analyze the details of the still-life and explain what impact the Columbian Exchange may have had on the kinds of food depicted. Predict how the still-life would have been different without the Columbian Exchange.
- Have students create still-life paintings of a pre-Columbian North American feast, and another depicting the impact of the Columbian Exchange on the feast.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and or/political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas/principles.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider