Sites of mediation

Imaginations of water: The maritime in Antwerp still-life

Dissertation project by Stefanie Wyssenbach, M.A.

Sub-project in Research module 3
Site of Intellection – The sea. Experience,
perception and representation around 1600

Adviser: Prof. Christine Göttler

The primary aim of my dissertation project is to provide a focussed study of maritime still-lifes in seventeenth-century Antwerp. The maritime theme is defined broadly as a term encompassing the sea, shipping and trade. The paintings thus contain depictions that range from harbours or stormy seas to objects that were traded, collected and consumed, including globes or nautical instruments. 

I am especially interested in uncovering the visual-historical linkages between the sea—I also include the River Scheldt here – and Antwerp as an urban centre. The dissertation thus understands the maritime still-lifes not just as representations of natural wealth, but rather as sophisticated comments that speak of objects that were traded, exchanged and collected through and by means of the water. The paintings, most of which hung in private households, will also be analysed in their relationship to the city and its material culture. Questions about the interpretation and valuation of the pictures, but also about the appropriation of the works and the objects shown, are central here. 

The maritime still-lifes are viewed as objects that not only spoke to an interest in trade and impulses towards collecting and material luxury, but also addressed and illustrated specific forms of urban knowledge. This encompassed geographical knowledge as well as knowledge about new comestibles, exotic animals and the production of applied arts. The dissertation focuses on these aspects not just with respect to the urban elite as collectors and patrons of the arts, but also with regard to the artist – for example Jan Davidsz. De Heem, Carstian Luyckx and Frans Snijders – as the observer and creator of the paintings.