The painter whose work I would most like to live with – I don’t mean own; rather, visit regularly -- is Adriaen Coorte. He was born in Middelburg, the Netherlands, around 1665, studied in Amsterdam and spent most of his life in the city of his birth. Some eighty signed works survive. Most are small still-life paintings depicting fruit and vegetables, lit from above and surrounded by darkness. Coorte died after 1707 and his work was virtually unknown until its rediscovery by scholars in the nineteen-fifties.
Coorte has no precise cognate among writers. How could he? One thinks of Francis Ponge’s Le parti pris des choses but words seem clumsy and approximate beside the precision and glow of Coorte’s asparagus and gooseberries. Describing the paintings in words risks sentimentality or banality, which they never possess. The word I’m trying to avoid is among the slipperiest -- “realism.” No one would mistake a Coorte melon for the real thing. He didn’t paint trompe-l'œil, which often is wonderful but suggests gimmickry, a joke by the painter on the viewer. Coorte’s paintings feel like sacraments, homages to creation.
In the essay “Still Life with a Bridle,” Zbigniew Herbert describes his reaction to seeing a painting in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum which also holds much of Coorte’s work. The still life was done by Johannes Symonsz van der Beeck (1589-1644), better known as Torrentius. Herbert writes of the experience the work evoked:
“A suddenly awakened intense curiosity, sharp concentration with the senses alarmed, hope for an adventure and consent to be dazzled. I experienced an almost physical sensation as if someone called me, summoned me.”
That approximates what I feel when looking at Coorte’s paintings, even in reproduction. Call it a heightened or sharpened state. To look at such work is to see the humblest objects with a new attentiveness and gratitude for their existence. Czeslaw Milosz in the poem “Realism” (from Facing the River, 1995, translated by Milosz and Robert Hass) writes:
“We are not so badly off, if we can
Admire Dutch painting.”
There’s no surprise in two Polish poets, veterans of their nation’s twentieth-century torment, admiring the Dutch masters of realism. Later in his poem Milosz writes:
“And thus abstract art is brought to shame,
Even if we do not deserve any other.”