Clara Peeters (fl. 1607–1621) was a still-life painter who came from Antwerp and trained in the tradition of Flemish Baroque painting, but probably made her career mostly in the new Dutch Republic, as part of Dutch Golden Age painting. Many aspects of her life and work remain very unclear, especially outside the period 1607 to 1621 from which period dated paintings are known. As Seymour Slive puts it "Not a single uncontested document has surfaced about her life but there is reason to believe she was active in both Flanders and Holland."
She was unusual for her time in being a female painter, and is the earliest significant woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age; if regarded as a Flemish painter, she was the most famous Flemish woman of the 17th century. Most female Dutch painters also specialized in still lifes, which did not require knowledge of anatomy, among other advantages for women. Unlike Maria van Oosterwyck and Rachel Ruysch, who specialized in flower painting, Peeters painted mostly subjects including food, and was prominent among the artists who shaped the traditions of the Dutch ontbijtjes, "breakfast pieces" with plain food and simple vessels, and banketje, "banquet pieces" with expensive cups and vessels in precious metals. More than any other artist, her works often include careful depictions of different types of cheese.
Little is known about the life of Clara Peeters. It is generally agreed by scholars that her work points to her being a native of Antwerp. The city of Antwerp's archives hold a record of a Clara Peeters, daughter of Jean (Jan) Peeters, baptized on 15 May 1594 in the Church of St. Walburga in Antwerp. A second document indicates a marriage between a Clara Peeters and Henricus Joosen on 31 May 1639, in the same church. However, both Clara and especially Peeters were common names in Antwerp. A baptism in 1594 would imply that her 1607-dated paintings were done when she was 12 or 13. Some scholars doubt that those early works could have been done by one so young and have posited that she was born in the 1580s.
Peeters was established in Amsterdam by 1611 and is documented in The Hague in 1617. Some have suggested that in light of there not being any evident work by Peeters after 1621, she ceased painting after getting married, as for example Judith Leyster effectively did. Because of the number of apparent copies of her work by various hands, some speculate that she may have headed a small school of artists. Two 1630s paintings of nearly the same still life, in her style and signed CP, are currently considered anonymous and not from her hand. A painting supposedly by her and dated 1657 was recorded but is now lost. This is much later than the dating given to her surviving works. No record indicating Peeters' date of death has been found; however, scholars speculate various dates: in or after 1621; after 1654; after 1657; 1659 and 1676.
Peeters' first known painting is signed and dated 1607; the technical polish and compositional sophistication of this painting and of her other early works indicate the skill of a highly trained artist. Her work suggests training in Antwerp, a city where artists stressed detail and careful finish in painting.
No record of her apprenticeship has been found. Most artists as well as apprentices were included in the records of the local Guild of Saint Luke. However, her name is not found in any of the Guild's records in Antwerp nor those of Amsterdam, Haarlem, Delft, The Hague or Middelburg. Scholars speculate that she may have been the daughter of a painter, and thus not required to be included in the apprenticeship records. Or, perhaps the answer may be in the fact that the Antwerp Guild records were lost for the years 1607 to 1628, and some of the names are known only through other documents.
Many scholars believe her work closely resembles that of Osias Beert and suppose a relationship between the two. Some suggest she was his pupil. Beert began his career as a still-life painter when he became a master of the Antwerp guild in 1602. However none of his works are dated, although some of the copper plates were stamped with dates from 1606 to 1609 by their supplier. Their relationship must remain speculative. She has also been linked to Antwerp artists Hans van Essen and Jan van der Beeck. Jan Bruegel the elder has also been suggested as a possible teacher.
Although she was not in its records, at least one painting of Peeters bears the stamp of the Antwerp Guild on its back, indicating she was indeed a member, or at least working on panels made by members of the Antwerp Guild.
There is much more information about her works than of her life. Peeters clearly signed thirty-one works "CLARA PEETERS" or "CLARA P.", and dated many of them, leaving a strong record of her work from 1607 to 1621. Eighteen of these were completed by the time she was eighteen years old. In addition, another seventy-six works are speculated to be in her oeuvre, although documentation is lacking to assign them affirmatively to Peeters. Several of her paintings, including two illustrated here, carry the signature represented as an engraved inscription on the side of the handle of the same decorated knife. The knife has two nude female figures, no doubt allegorical, on the main face of the handle that is visible, and is typical of the sort of "brides knife" (bruidmessen) Antwerp silversmiths produced around 1595‒1600. These may represent a real knife owned by Peeters, or simply an imagined one.
Peeters was in the earliest group of painters of still lifes and flowers, while this genre was still new. Fewer than ten paintings of flowers and fewer than five of food produced in the Netherlands can be dated before 1608, when she painted her first recorded work. She painted a set of four larger than usual (all 50‒51 × 71‒73 cm) still lifes, three dated 1611, that were in the Spanish royal collection by the following century and are now in the Prado. The set includes the earliest still-life of dead game birds, if Jacopo de' Barbari's famous Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets (1504, now Munich) from a very different tradition is excepted. The Prado group were split between Spanish palaces in the 18th century, with the earliest inventory record for any being in 1734, when one was rescued in the fire that destroyed the Royal Alcazar of Madrid. Her paintings of fish and game of 1611 are five-to-twenty years before we find other artists using similar subject matter. Her influence on Dutch and Flemish artists is evidenced not only by her subject matter, but also in her progressive use of a monochrome palette, low viewing angle, more compact format and limited number of objects.
Peeters' work soon abandons the elevated viewpoint typical of Beert, and seen in the work dated 1607 illustrated here, for a lower viewpoint, which was to remain much more typical of later works by almost all artists. In that work the front of the table is almost at the bottom edge of the composition, again typical of Beert. In her later works there is a wider margin at the bottom of the picture, and the further edge of the table comes lower down the picture space, though the dark background remains featureless.
In her works before 1620, Peeters was especially fascinated by the fall of light on metal objects: coins, goblets, pewter dishes, etc. and their reflections. In like manner as Jan van Eyck included his portrait in the reflection of the mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding portrait (1434), Peeters frequently included miniature self-portraits within the reflections she painted. She depicted herself in the reflection of goblets and gilt-cups of many of her paintings and may well have been the artist to popularize this technique. She was also very skilled at distinguishing textures. In her Still-Life of Fish and Cat, the coat of the cat is almost touchable and the reflections create the illusion of space. Some believe religious symbolism was prevalent in her paintings; here the fish, symbol of Christ, is placed in the position of a cross. Peeters changed her style after 1620, employing a monochromatic color scheme with humble subject matter of stacked cheeses, bread and simple jugs.
Although the highly specialized form of still life she helped develop went out of fashion in Flanders, her contributions to the formation of banquet and breakfast piece in Antwerp at the beginning of the 17th century has long been recognized. The painters Nicolaes Cave, Artus Claessens and Floris van Dyck worked in a style that was close to that of Peeters.
Although no record of patrons is available, Peeters was a successful artist. Many aspects of her paintings give the impression that she worked for rich collectors: her works are larger than normal in size; they typically depict expensive objects, coins and jewelry; and many of her works have been found in collections of wealthy individuals. Four of her early works came to the Prado from the Spanish royal collection, and one is found listed in a collection from 1627, while another is listed in a document of a notary in 1628. In 1973 one of her paintings was sold in an auction at Christie's in London for £39,900. In April 2009, Christie's London sold a Peeters painting they titled, Apples, Cherries, Apricots and other fruit in a Basket, with Pears, Plums,Robins, a Woodpecker, a Parrot and a Monkey Eating Nuts on a Table for about $150,000 (Sale 7714 Lot 24). In June 2012 the Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels – bought in 2000 by an American private collection for about $2,900,000 – was acquired by the Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague, Netherlands, for an undisclosed sum.
Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries, 1612–1618 
Still Life with Crab, Shrimps and Lobster, unattributed painting in the style of Clara Peeters, 1630–39 
- Gaze, p. 535
- Slive, 281
- Vlieghe, 10
- Gaze, p. 534-7
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- Van Der Stichelen, K., Westen, M., Elck zijn waerom: Vrouwelijke kunstenaars in België en Nederland, 1500-1950, Ludion Antwerpen 1999, blz. 141-143, ISBN 9055442712
- Vlieghe, 217, and note 52 (p. 297).
- Willigen, Adriaan van der; Meijer, Fred G. (2003). A dictionary of Dutch and Flemish still-life painters working in oils : 1525-1725. Leiden: Primavera. pp. 158–159. ISBN 90-74310-85-0.
- Wilenski, R.H. Flemish Painters 1430–1830. New York: Viking Press, 1960.
- Breakfast still life and Still life with Shellfish and Eggs in the RKD
- Vlieghe, 217 for the plates
- Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
- Gaze, p. 535; Museo del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas, 1996, p. 279, Ministerio de Educación y Cultura, Madrid, ISBN 8487317537; Slive, 288
- Vlieghe, 217-218
- Still-Life of Fish and Cat in the National Museum of Women in the Arts
- Clara Peeters at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (in Dutch)
- Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.
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