The exhibition explores the concept of the good life from different points of view such as morality, abundance and transience. Many of the themes still remain valid to this day. The exhibition comprises some 50 still lifes from the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, dating back to the 16th–18th centuries. The exhibition also includes contemporary works of art that comment the current themes.
The still life as an art form gained an unprecedented popularity in the 17th century when the Protestant Netherlands’ wealthy bourgeoisie began to acquire art. This popularity was also reflected in the wealth of subjects depicted in the paintings. These ranged from everyday foodstuffs to rich and abundant depictions of game and luxury imported goods, such as lemons and seashells, that revelled in their masterful material qualities.
The Netherlands’ dominance of the world markets meant that the still lifes commonly featured exciting and never-before-seen items, which served to boost the social status of their owners. Advances in plant science gave rise to lush and beautiful flower arrangements, rich in symbolic meaning. New tulip varieties, in a range of vibrant colours, were subject to feverish trade activity – right up until the bubble burst. In response to rising levels of material wealth and well-being, a public discourse on morality and restraint became an important feature of Dutch culture. The skull, originally depicted for medical purposes, became a staple element in the vanitas paintings reminded of the transience of the life, earthly material abundance.