Still life reminded viewers of the prosperity of their republic. It is probably not a coincidence that it emerged parallel with the world’s first consumer society. The Dutch were proud of their wealth and the effort that produced it, yet abundance could also nudge the conscience to contemplation of more weighty matters. Paintings in which fruit rots, flowers wither, insects nibble at leaves, and expensively set tables lie asunder served as a memento mori or “reminder of death,” intended to underscore life’s transience and the greater weight of moral considerations.
Still life did not rank high with art theorists. Hoogstraten (see p. 125) called still-life painters “foot soldiers in the army of art.” Yet Dutch still-life paintings were hugely popular. They attracted some of the finest artists and commanded high prices. Many painters specialized in certain types of still life, including pictures of flowers or game, banquet and breakfast pieces that depict tables set with food, and vanitas still lifes, which reminded viewers of the emptiness of material pursuits.
Text from: National Gallery of Art