Still Life

Written by Dodie Bishop
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Antwerp, 1604: Clara Peeters, aged ten, is already a gifted painter when her mother dies in childbirth. The title Still Life refers to Peeters’ subject matter as an artist; her life, as imagined by Bishop, is anything but static. Fearful of following her mother’s fate, Clara renounces love in favour of painting—the man she loves and who loves her marries someone else—yet has to battle against an establishment that does not see art as a womanly undertaking. Her nemesis is a mayor who offers his patronage but tries to rape her; ultimately Clara faces charges of witchcraft and murder.

Though Peeters was prolific as a painter, the author has needed to apply considerable artistic licence, but does this convincingly, for Bishop not only knows how paintings were made but evokes interiors in a painterly way: ‘Candlelight shone in the many mirrors – some old Venetian, others cheaper Amsterdam copies – arranged to make the room appear larger. The whole room glowed with light, the air heavy with the scent of hot beeswax and tobacco, a smoky miasma already beginning to form.’ Peeters’ ‘signature’, a tiny self-portrait reflected in a drop of water or on a polished convex surface, forms part of the plot. Other real artists cross Clara’s path, such as Johannes van der Beeck and Arent Arentsz; Frans Hals is glancingly mentioned. Clara emerges as single-minded and demanding of her pupils; she does not seem particularly supportive of her single female apprentice.

Her story is deftly written, though repetitions of characters’ tics sometimes intrude (too much head tilting and lip-chewing), and in plot terms, a maidservant’s motivation to inform is inadequately explored. Still Life, though, is an absorbing portrait of a time and place and of a talented woman’s struggle against convention.