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.
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?