NCMA Recommends: Still Life with Two Figures

Attributed to Pieter Cornelisz. van Rijck, Still Life with Two Figures, 1622, oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 58 1/4 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Tables filled with food are an enduring symbol of Thanksgiving. In this painting, showing an abundance of fruit and vegetables, the artist presents a scene of plenty, part of a genre of similar still lifes that flourished during a period of peace within the 80 Years War between the Dutch and the Spanish. This temporary truce led to prosperity (and increased wealth) on both sides and coincided directly with the increasing Dutch colonial foothold in the Americas.

The Dutch began exploring the Americas in 1602. In 1623 they founded New Netherland, a territory that included all of modern-day New Jersey and New York City (then called New Amsterdam), and much more besides. In New Amsterdam the Dutch relied on enslaved African labor to cultivate crops, clear land, and make way for further settlements.

The labor of the enslaved supported the Dutch enterprises abroad and the prosperity back home in northern Europe, prosperity that allowed celebrations of abundance such as that captured in this Still Life with Two Figures. Not only could the richness showcased here not have existed without Dutch colonialism, but direct references to this are also included in the painting. Green beans, squash, pumpkins, and the most prominent symbol of modern Thanksgiving, the turkey, are all native to the Americas. They appear in our painting because, like so many other products such as pepper, sugar, and tobacco, they were introduced to western Europe by colonizers and explorers returning home.

While we celebrate with Thanksgiving feasts of our own, and paintings like this will of course bring about happy memories of past holidays, it is important to understand the history of such scenes of abundance. In images like this one, the good and beautiful exist simultaneously with the painful and ugly.

Through the Generations

Consider the artistic traditions passed from grandmother to granddaughter over hundreds of generations in a traveling exhibition of work by Native American women artists. Now on view in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hearts of Our People originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and contains 82 works of art from ancient to contemporary times. Explore the exhibition virtually though videos and audio tours. Rose B. Simpson is one of the featured artists, and this PBS video is a wonderful entry point to learn more about her work and the work of her mother and other women in this remarkable exhibition.

Comfort Food

Meet Nancy Strickland Fields, curator and director of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian, based at UNC—Pembroke. Fields describes the museum’s new video series, Chicken and Pastry for the Soul,  as “a spin on the successful book series Chicken Soup for the Soul.” Inspired by the books’ goal of uplifting readers, the seven-part video series aims to inspire and encourage audiences from a uniquely American Indian perspective. Chicken and Pastry is a beloved staple dish for many Native and non-Native communities in Eastern North Carolina. Using the dish as a metaphor, the series connects viewers with the values and behaviors that have sustained Native American Indian communities through other difficult times.

From the Fields

This week’s featured painting brims with beautiful produce that North Carolinians can recognize as crops cultivated on farms across the state. With 75 acres to safely explore, the State Farmers Market in Raleigh offers an opportunity to experience the bounty of the fields straight from the farmer’s hands. Though this year’s Thanksgiving plans may keep us closer to home, folks across the state can still support their local farmers at markets large and small,  while remembering and honoring the Native Americans who cultivated the land before us, growing the corn, beans, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and peanuts that we enjoy today.

Watch how one Western North Carolina farmers market has adapted for 2020.

North Carolina farmers create their own versions of Still Life with Two Figures.

Sharing Our Plenty

Coming together to celebrate looks different this year, and with thoughts of our most vulnerable neighbors, many families are looking for ways to both count their blessings and share them. Consider supporting the efforts of the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina as it provides meals for those who need them most this holiday season.

 A Cornucopia of Reading

Learn more about the Lumbee Nation of North Carolina, including history, folklore, and crafts, in The Only Land I Know. Curious about how food traveled across the Atlantic to show up in Dutch still-life painting? This article details the history of food in European paintings, and this article discusses the concept of an “embarrassment of riches” in the sumptuous paintings that have a less than golden explanation for the beauty on display.

From Scarcity to Abundance 

Join us for a Mindful Museum session taught by Lumbee Tribe member Jesalyn Keziah, MSW, whose work focuses on integrating art, nature, community, and Indigenous mental health. This virtual program on Wednesday, December 2, guides you through a creative visioning exercise, a meditation, and a group discussion of abundance and myths about scarcity. Register and see more details here.

Audio Description 

This recording is an audio description of Still Life with Two Figures. Audio description is narration for individuals who are blind or have low vision. It is a means to inform them about visual content essential for comprehension.


Nov 20, 2020


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