Museums have long overlooked art by women. But that’s an old story. The saga started to change about a half century ago when an increasing number of exhibit halls started to recognize female artists and mount shows of their work. So it’s odd that only now, this year in the 21st century, the Prado has gotten around to giving the first one-person show to a woman - 17th century Flemish painter Clara Peeters. It’s as if Spain’s two-century-old national repository of Old Master art just got the memo. And as startling as that late-to-the-party fact is, there’s this: Not one but four of her paintings have sat in the Prado’s permanent collection for decades.

What, no one there noticed them until now?

A woman lives off her art in the 17th century

But enough about the Prado. Who was Clara Peeters? Records indicate that she was born in Antwerp toward the end of the 1580s and was a contemporary of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyke and Jan Brueghel the Elder. The exact date of her birth is missing from the history books. This is odd because she was a popular painter in her day, supporting herself with the sale of her paintings, which is more than most artists – male or female - can say today. She didn’t marry until she was 45. That’s another oddity. We know when she married and how old she was, but not where she got her art training, unless she came into the world knowing how to paint. It’s notable that her four (decidedly accomplished) paintings owned by the Prado were made when she was only 16 years old.

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Inventing the still life

Peeters’ specialty was the still life - goblets, flowers, fruit, gold coins, glassware, fish and game – and it was a genre she reportedly pioneered. But you don’t need a history book to tell you how skilled a painter she was, particularly when it came to rendering different textures, including the reflections cast from glossy surface of a wine glass or a pewter pitcher. And get this, Peeters made self-portraits in miniature, barely visible in reflections coming off goblets and vases. The fact that her likenesses are tiny and hardly discernible suggests Peeters’ sense of place in the world.

Beyond skill

It goes without saying that Peeters was a highly skilled painter. But there’s more to her work than meticulous renderings of inanimate objects. She also loaded her pictures up with symbols that remind viewers of how temporary life is. For example, she imparts human mortality not only with obvious emblems like hour glasses, skulls and snuffed-out candles, but also with items such as worm eaten flowers. So besides gorgeous renderings, you get imagery with purpose and consequence. Either way, Peeters’ paintings are far and away from anything seen in art today. It’s about time the Prado got around to recognizing her, don’t you think?

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