Samuel van Hoogstraten – Letter Board (1666 – 1678)

Although he made a name for himself thanks to still lifes – by depicting letter racks, in particular – Samuel van Hoogstraten didn’t see much merit in this painting genre. Featuring repetitive personal items and references, such as manuscripts, handwritten letters and notes, writing tools, grooming utensils and other seemingly trivial objects, the Dutchman’s still lifes were so convincingly rendered that they frequently tricked the viewers into believing they were real. This three-dimensional technique is known as trompe-l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”).

According to an anecdote shared by Dutch artist and biographer Arnold Houbraken, when van Hoogstraten presented three of his paintings before Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna, the latter was absolutely thrilled and delighted with the artist’s still life, declaring himself “fooled”:

“When on the 6th of harvest month [August] 1651 he showed samples of his art, the Emperor, Empress, King of Hungary, and Archbishop were present. These consisted of three pieces. The first [was] a portrait of a nobleman, the second a Christ Crowned with Thorns, which they all praised to the skies. But especially when the third piece (being a still life) was shown, the Emperor, letting on that he was enamored of it, looked at the same for a long time but found himself deceived and said about this: ‘This is the first painter to have fooled me.’ And then had him notified ‘that as punishment for that deceit, he would not get that piece back, since he wished to keep it forever and treasure it.’”

In return, Emperor Ferdinand III offered the artist a gold medal with his effigy and a chain, items that would subsequently appear in almost all of van Hoogstraten’s paintings of letter racks, as a reminder of the royal nod of approval he once received. It is precisely this preoccupation with making himself look good that has made art critics question what was the real purpose of the Dutchman’s still lifes. Partly personal in nature, they could be seen as indirect self-portraits, reflecting the artist’s interests, personality and status as a well-off, fine man of letters. But they were also marketing tools, sometimes offered as gifts or tributes, as a way to gain favor with highly ranked people and nobility. Mostly decorative in purpose, the artworks impressed the recipients with the three dimensional realism they exuded.

Samuel van Hoogstraten - Letter Board
Samuel van Hoogstraten – Letter Board (1666 – 1678), oil on canvas

Letter Board or Letter Rack with Medal and Own Plays is one such trompe-l’oeil still life, completed between 1666 and 1678. The various objects are seemingly strapped to the board with red leather bands and many of them appear in other paintings as well. For starters, we have the gold medal with the effigy of Emperor Ferdinand III and the chain received as a gift, here adorned with a bow. The antique cameo of a Roman Emperor is also a reference to Ferdinand III. With writing being his second passion, we can see printed copies of van Hoogstraten’s plays, Dieryk en Dorothé and De Roomsche Paulina. The razor inlaid with tortoiseshell, next to the large comb on the right, is a personal item featured repeatedly in other still lifes of his. The pair of scissors, the combs, the knife and the quill pen are also recurring objects, yet they don’t possess a similar sentimental value.

By layering the items like this and making good use of the play of shadows and light, the artist achieves an effect realistic enough to deceive our eyes. It certainly did so for Arnold Houbraken, who writes: “I have seen remains of this still at his house, there an apple, pear or lemon in a rack for saucers; yonder a slipper or a shoe painted on a carved board and placed in the corner of a room or under a chair, along with dried salted flounders painted on a grounded canvas, cut out and hung on a nail somewhere behind a door, which were so deceptively painted that one could easily be mistaken and take them for actual dried flounders.”

As much as he excelled at these still lifes, van Hoogstraten didn’t find them intellectually stimulating enough, opting instead to dedicate his attention to architectural paintings and the design of perspective boxes. By looking through peepholes, these boxes offered three dimensional perspectives of Dutch house interiors. He was also an art theoretician, his treatise Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World gaining him as much recognition as his art.



So why should we care about these purely decorative still lifes when even van Hoogstraten himself didn’t prize them greatly? I would say that beyond their fine technical detail and realism, these letter racks offer us a glimpse into the private and social life of a 17th century Dutch artist driven by ambition and intellectual pursuits. And after all, they’re quite pretty, aren’t they?

15 thoughts on “Samuel van Hoogstraten – Letter Board (1666 – 1678)

  1. They are indeed, and a genealogist’s dream, too. Glimpse into the private and social life of an age as well as a person in this regard. Surprisingly old. Had the pictures been shown to me without any context, I would not have guessed it was from the 17th century!

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    1. That’s right, the paintings can be seen as time capsules too. Any vintage lover will appreciate them for the insight they provide into another era. Plus I have no problem with art that is made purely for decorative reasons. Not when it’s this skillful, at any rate.

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  2. I have great admiration (and some envy) for people who are able to create paintings as realistic as these. Generally I don’t think of this type of painting ,especially these examples, as art because they don’t affect me emotionally (except the twinge of envy I mentioned). But who am I to say – “… eye of the beholder” and all that.

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    1. You raise a very good point, David. Whether that’s the purpose of art: to provoke an emotional response. I would think still life, in general, will fail to achieve that. Beyond the “they look pretty” reason, for me these objects allude to comfort, peace of mind and time to reflect, given their repetition and ritualistic nature.

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  3. They are stunning, always and definitely still fool our modern eyes which is quite an achievement, if you think of it. We are so used to hyper-reality, virtual reality and special effects that these should look antiquated. Yet, no! They are still visually powerful and illusionistic.
    The peepholes are fabulous too so I am hoping you’ll give us a companion post one of these days.

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    1. Well said, Ingrid! It’s a massive achievement that van Hoogstraten can fool us even centuries later. What a trickster! Hmm, a post about his peepshows would be quite a challenge. I think you’d do a far better job than me, if you’re up for it. I would certainly link back to you.

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  4. I Googled him to see his other kinds of paintings, and, yeah, he’s massively skilled. My first reaction is that it would be fun to go to a retrospective of his work. As another commenter pointed out, they still look fairly fresh today, and we’d think otherwise. Partly, I suspect, that’s because he’s really emphasized the composition, and the picture plane, despite the trompe-l’oeil is very limited in terms of depth of field. In other words, you have a relatively flat, complex composition that forays into the abstract, as if forefronts design over content.

    Unfortunately, I don’t care for the red bands that hold everything in place. There’s an American realist who did similar things much better, and later, to my eye. Uuuuh, William Michael Harnett.

    Oddly, Hoogstraten may also seem modern BECAUSE of his gimmick, and marketing strategies. Offering somewhat glib ornaments to the utlra-wealthy is a technique practiced by Koons and Hirst today, and going back to Warhol. Hoogstraten has a more varied oeuvre, though, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison. I’m just pointing out that what might be seen in art historical terms as his failures or shortcomings are in contemporary art — where everyone, including Trump, quotes Warhol’s claim that making money is the highest form of art — his most admirable qualities.

    I wonder if I saw a retrospective, which of his paintings in which style would impress me the most.

    However one slices it, “Letter Board” is quite an achievement in painting, and there are certainly living practitioners of just this kind of art, so it’s a rather timeless pursuit.

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    1. I’m with you on that: van Hoogstraten’s pragmatism to promote himself makes him seem modern, ahead of his times. It worked for him financially, but it ended up tainting his works, if we’re stuck questioning his real motives. We rather have this romantic view of artists working solely out of passion. It’s merely a speculation that he gave away these still lifes as gifts, another hypothesis being that they were meant as “branding” tools, for him to make himself known while living in England. And much of what we know about him comes from his pupil, Arnold Houbraken, who basically thought that his mentor was a man of great intellect, but a mediocre painter, wasting his talent by trying different styles. Ouch!

      Anyway, I’m glad you liked his works. I didn’t think you’d be into this sort of still lifes.


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