Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Clara Peeters - Truth and Fiction

"Doing easily what others find difficult is talent; doing what is impossible for talent is genius." Henri-Frederic Amiel

Clara awakened from her deep sleep with her mother shaking her by the shoulders. "Up you get lazybones," she said briskly. "Today you go to Savery to paint your grasshoppers." Clara smiled and rolled over in her warm bed, pulling the sheet over her head. It was December and Antwerp was blanketed deeply in snow. The wind whistled around the roof of the house and through cracks in the window frames. A fire crackled in the kitchen but the sleeping room was freezing. She took a deep breath, threw the blanket back and ran to the cupboard to take out her dress and blue painting smock. She could see her breath in smoky puffs appearing and disappearing in the frigid air. She pulled on her paint stained boots, laced them tightly and walked out to the kitchen and the warmth. A chocolate drink, a biscuit with ontbijtje - a little herring, and a square of her favorite cheese were waiting for her: she gobbled the breakfast down eagerly as her mother watched her, smiling. "Scrub that face until your cheeks are shining and brush your hair. You must look your prettiest, and you will help Mr. Savery have a goot day in his shop."

Clara enjoyed working in the Savery studio. Mr. Roelandt was a pleasant man and he treated her very well. He allowed her to paint animals on the easel in the front of the shop where the fire burned all day and the customers came in to buy the paintings and engravings he sold. Not officially an apprentice - at eleven Clara was too young - but she was allowed to paint, in collaboration, with an official apprentice or with fully credentialed painters. After she completed one of her animals, an apprentice begrudgingly added a falling feather, a piece of string or a shadow to make the painting official according to the Guild of St. Luke; the canvas would be signed by Savery or left anonymous. She painted in the warm room, on display, for only two hours each day. For the rest of days with Savery, she ground pigments and made "pounces" for the other apprentices. When she painted her first animals she used the pounce or tracing as a guide, but quickly rejected the method. The pounce was copied from an existing work by pushing holes in thin paper over the original and then sprinkling carbon black over the holes to make an outline on a canvas. Savery gave Clara cheap canvases when she began - small squares cut out of discarded sails. Other apprentices slathered the canvas with primer after stretching it to make a smooth surface. When Savery realized the quality of Clara's work and her value to his shop sales, he gave her quality canvases and an excellent palette with which to work.

The Guild had no rules to provide for a "wunderkind" like Clara. Her situation was unique, and all the Guild members recognized her talent. She was accepted as a kind of mascot in Antwerp art circles by most, but the jealous apprentices rebuffed her and denied her skill as simple trickery and her talent as suspicious, perhaps even diabolical. They sneered at her in jealousy and turned their backs on her as she passed by.

Clara's animals were startling to the eye. She filled the canvas from top to bottom with her cats. They stared menacingly with brilliant eyes that seemed to follow the audience around. A viewer could almost feel the soft and silky fur. Watching the child wield her brush, she seemed to enter another world, one where cats sprang to life with each of her strokes. The animal paintings could not be sold according to the Guild, but Savery kept all Clara's best animals, official or not, as an investment in the future. The prodigy had God-given skill duplicating details with paint more skillfully than most artists could ever achieve.

She was working today on a cat's eye, and Savery watched her with her finest mongoose brush and the new paint they'd mixed with diamond dust. As he looked over her shoulder with his glass, he realized she was painting her own tiny reflection in the eye of the cat. Yes, there was her blond head and her blue smock - no more than a speck of brilliant smalt, the ground potassium glass they'd just begun to use in the studio. The apothecary had brought it to them along with the routine supply of pigment. Clara had mixed the smalt with oil; the color was deeper than the ultramarine and azurite they usually used for blues. Her reflection looked simply like shapeless light unless you used the hand lens to examine it. Savery laughed out loud and silently congratulated Clara on her newly found method of crediting her work.

She would have piping hot soup for lunch and excellent buttered bread. Later she would paint grasshoppers in the rear of the shop, out of sight. Many moderately skilled painters in Antwerp created and sold "table arrangements" or "stilleven" and Savery had them piled up in stacks against the walls. It was 1606, the art market in Antwerp was brisk, and more than two million paintings would be created by the Dutch during the new century. Most were not valuable because of their amateurish technique; ordinary and repetitive themes; little more than a kind of wallpaper. In the current fashion, Netherlanders hung these paintings from ceiling to floor in their homes, crowding them together and confusing the eye. When one of Clara's grasshoppers was added to the banal scenes, they came instantly to life - the insects looked as if they might leap off the wall. Like magic, the brilliant bugs made customer's wallets open, and guilders flow steadily into Savery's coffers.

A Clara Grasshopper

 Peeters Stilleven: A still life with carp in a ceramic colander. Private Collection.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting, particularly since was just painting a cat's eye (Zoe's). And I had taken a photo of a grasshopper at Megan's wedding! I'd like to read more about Clara.