Adriaen Coorte: Still Life with Strawberries (1705); Mauritshuis, The Hague

This unassuming, but utterly charming bunch of wild strawberries was made by Adriaen Coorte, a Dutch 17th century painter who lived in or near the city of Middelburg in Zeeland.
To most people nowadays, Middelburg is n

o more than a friendly provincial town. During the Dutch Golden Age, however, it was quite a different story! Middelburg was the second most important trading center of the country (Amsterdam being the first), with large shares in the Dutch East and West India Companies. Its prosperous citizens collected foreign artifacts and ordered luxury goods for their interior, and silversmiths, weavers and glassmakers had thriving businesses.
The overseas travels also sparked a growing interest in botany, and Middelburg doctors, preachers and merchants alike created luxurious gardens filled with newly imported exotic plants. In order to study such rare species outside their flowering and fruit-bearing periods, they were recorded in drawings and paintings to provide them with a permanent lease of life.
Flower and fruit still lifes became a hugely popular genre. For painters, they offered an opportunity to show their mastery of rendering different textures. For the owners, they formed a pleasant way of showing off wealth without compromising on religious virtue, since they celebrated God’s creations.
Toward the end of the 17th century, the arrangements became more and more ornate, resulting in elaborate displays of fruit, vegetables and tableware called “pronkstilleven.” While his contemporaries tried do outdo themselves, Coorte moved in the exact opposite direction: over the years, his works gained in simplicity, often showing just a single type of fruit. By reducing the composition of his backgrounds to bare ledges or niches, the focus on the main subject is intensified, revealing the extraordinary qualities of ordinary objects.
While his unfashionable austerity caused the painter’s name to sink into oblivion for centuries, it is precisely this plain design which prompted his reappraisal in recent years and which makes his work so timeless.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)