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Art

I’m Obsessed with Clara Peeters’s “Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels”

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Dutch cheeses may be the most underrated of cheeses. I can say this safely as a self-appointed cheese expert. Dutch cheeses fly under the radar largely, I think, because they keep the best stuff to themselves.
The rubbery Edams and Goudas that appear on my local supermarket shelf in France certainly pale in comparison to the rich variety on offer in even the most modest Dutch supermarket. When in the Netherlands, I take every opportunity to sample them in all their sublime diversity—be it delicately flavored with cumin seeds or aged until crisp, salty crystals appear beneath the surface. And more often than not, it is a recent viewing of a Dutch still life of cheese which has tempted me to do so.
Many Dutch still-life artists painted cheese, but none, to my mind, in such exquisite hunger-inducing detail as in Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (ca. 1615). The painting is now housed in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, but I first discovered it by chance in an exhibition at what was then the Rockoxhuis in Antwerp back in 2016. Since then, it has become something of an obsession—as has the enigmatic Peeters herself.
Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

The painting is a modest oil-on-oak-panel measuring a scant 34.5 by 49.5 centimeters, but Peeters uses it to glorious effect. A stack of three cheeses, their textures rendered with the gravitas of rock, dominate the panel. The largest is most likely a Gouda. We can see what appears to be a test hole made by an inspector who would have scooped out a section to taste before re-plugging the rind, as well as the marks left by a knife which has sliced through the cheese, allowing Peeters to revel in the variety of color and texture from rind to center. In the foreground is a greenish-brown Edam-like cheese, its peculiar hue derived either from parsley juice or horseradish added to milk during the production process. Atop the Gouda is a triangular goat cheese, upon which is balanced a dish of lovingly observed butter curls just waiting to be spread on the pillowy white roll that sits behind an elegant Façon de Venise wine glass.
Peeters has left the handle of a finely observed silver knife directed towards the viewer as if inviting them to carve into the Gouda, the Edam, or the goat, and share in the abundance. This knife—which bears her name—also invites us to acknowledge and admire Peeters as an artist. So does another astonishing detail in the painting: the minute self-portrait reflected in the pewter lid of a jug. These portraits, which appear in at least eight of Peeters’s paintings, “proclaim the worthiness not only of being a painter, but of being a woman painter,” according to the Museo Nacional del Prado’s senior curator of Flemish and Northern European paintings, Alejandro Vergara. The Prado was clearly aware of Peeters’s “worthiness,” for when the exhibition transferred there after the Rockoxhuis, it made her—somewhat astonishingly—the first-ever female painter to be granted a solo show at that illustrious institution.
Detail of Clara Peeters,  Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Detail of Clara Peeters,  Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, 1615. Courtesy of Mauritshuis.

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We know very little about Peeters’s life, apart from the fact that she seems to have been based in Antwerp. During her lifetime, training for female artists was limited and study from the nude forbidden, which made it impossible for her to specialize in more highly regarded genres such as history painting. Instead, she chose to be an innovator in one of the few areas that was open to her: still-life painting.
Still lifes were a relative novelty at the time—they were not even given this all-encompassing term until the mid–17th century, instead being referred to in descriptive terms such as “flower paintings” or “breakfast pieces.” Her decision to not only specialize in this evolving genre—which was proving increasingly popular with collectors—but to also paint it in the new realist style rather than the high idealism of (which dominated the Antwerp art scene of the period) implies an innovative, forward-looking mentality.
Peeters’s decision to paint cheese also suggests her acuity for commercial appeal. At the time, cheese and butter were major contributors to the Dutch economy and frequently appeared in still-life painting. Although a relatively inexpensive foodstuff eaten by all classes, if painted in a stack they could symbolize affluence, or even national pride, to the newly prosperous merchant class who were increasingly investing their wealth in art.
Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a Silver-gilt Goblet, Dried Fruit, Sweetmeats, Bread sticks, Wine and a Pewter Pitcher, 1611. Collection of Museo del Prado. Courtesy of Museo del Prado.

Detail of Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a Silver-gilt Goblet, Dried Fruit, Sweetmeats, Bread sticks, Wine and a Pewter Pitcher, 1611. Collection of Museo del Prado. Courtesy of Museo del Prado.

However, as the production of cheese was dominated by the Dutch Republic in the north, these paintings were generally by northern artists. Peeters was the only artist from what was then the Spanish-ruled Southern Netherlands to specialize in this genre. And clearly it was worth her while. She painted cheeses similar to the ones in the painting I am obsessed with on a number of occasions, varying the accompanying objects each time.
Did she actually paint them for the northern market? Did a stack of imported cheeses indicate wealth for southern buyers? Or were they a sign of pride for those who disliked being under the Spanish yoke?
With such little information about Peeters’s life, it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions on her motivations as an artist. But the facts we do have suggest that Peeters was a forward-thinking 17th-century female painter who tried to stand out from the crowd by specializing in capturing rich, tantalizing Dutch cheeses. Honestly, what’s not to love?

Want to share your art obsession?

Send a 150-word summary of the detail in a work of art that you can’t stop thinking about to [email protected] with the subject line “I’m Obsessed.” We’ll review submissions for potential inclusion in our publication.
Cath Pound