Still Life in the Dutch Golden Age

Still life with imaginary view, circa 1645-circa 1650. Laurens Craen (circa 1620-between 1665-1671), Dutch. Oil on panel, 63.4 x 85.3 cm. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia.

Laurens Craen, Still life with imaginary view, circa 1645-circa 1650. Oil on panel, 63.4 x 85.3 cm. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia.

Seventeenth century Dutch Republic was a place of remarkable prosperity and intellectual progress. After gaining independence from Spain, the Dutch became leaders in international trade which brought not only exquisite wealth but also contact with exotic objects from around the world.[1] Material welfare was accompanied with scientific discoveries and development of individual thought, and a practical attitude and reliance on reason became a norm.[2] These attitudes were reflected in increasingly secular artworks – instead of glorifying God and heavenly realms, the artists began to celebrate man (portraiture), his everyday life (genre paintings), surrounding nature (land- and seascapes), and objects of his world (still-life paintings).[3] Artists “marveled at the creative diversity of nature, her ability to form coloured shapes beyond the flights of human fancy”[4], and found great delight in capturing these forms. The various types of still-lifes developed[5], including “banquet-pieces” which depicted tables arranged with food. Many painters specialised in this particular type of imagery, amongst them Laurens Craen whose Still life with imaginary view shows a typical compositional structure and formal elements of the 17th century Dutch banquet paintings.

In Still life with imaginary view, a wooden table, partly covered by a silk cloth, is filled with various items of food and dishware. In the middle foreground, a large silver platter holds oysters and a half-cut lemon; its peel dangling down in curls over the table’s edge. A couple of lemons sit to the left side of the picture plane; in front of them lemon slices and empty shrimp shells litter the table. Nestled beside the lemons and the silver platter are bunches of white and red grapes which are adjacent to a silver ewer whose surface reflects the surrounding objects. Next to the ewer and occupying the far back right corner of the table is a wicker basket containing more fruit and covered with a white linen napkin; atop it another silver platter with a partially carved ham. Grape brunches and leafs swirl out of the basket and around the plater with the ham. In the far background, two half-filled venetian wine glasses form a diagonal line which stretches from one glass to the other and then proceeding to the ewer, the thin branch of the white-grape bunch, two lemons, and finally the table edge to the left. This diagonal movement across the picture plane affords the image a sense of dynamism and leads our eye through the painting; from the shadowed upper right to the brightly lit lower left, following the food spilling down from one level to the other. Balancing the bright yellow colour of the two lemons on the left is a sliced melon which sits directly opposite, on the far right. Here again the table is littered by the seeds and other food scraps. Behind the table and to the left end of the frame, an imposing velvet curtain is pulled to the side to reveal a country view carrying out to infinity, way out of the picture plane. The curtain serves to indicate that the view is, in fact, through the three dimensional ledge of a window frame, and not a two dimensional painting.

Craen uses oblique lighting (which fills the room diagonally from the lower left) to create delicate shadows around the objects capturing their three-dimensionality and texture. The evocation of textures increases realism and pulls the viewer into the picture. This effect is obvious on the folds of the silk tablecloth which is animated through the interplay between light and shades and a lovely shine of the fabric where it creases. Similarly, the sharp patches of light on the silver platters depict the natural shine of these metallic objects. The reflection of objects on the silver ewer reinforces the verisimilitude of the scene and is illustrative of the time when painters were “fascinated with the optical effects of mirrors and highly polished surfaces”[6]. Thick layers of paint on the lemons in the left foreground give these objects a tactile quality, enhanced by the light bouncing off the small lumps along their surface. Craen emphasizes the lines to create sharp edges, such as the crisp contours of the grapes that appear luscious and edible thanks to their bounteous shape and their enticing shininess which surges towards the viewer. Through the neat and precise application of paint and relatively invisible transitions between the brushstrokes, Craen eliminates the evidence of his hand and achieves an illusion of realism.

The Dutch love for the microscopic naturalism and remarkable attention to detail is evident not only in the faithful rendering of various shapes and textures, but also in the accurate presentation of local colours which make the objects appear exactly as they would be if found in nature. Craen’s palette is comprised of deep greens, bright yellows, muted reds, and ochre; all colours are spread evenly throughout the composition creating a sense of balance and harmony. Red and yellow create a vibrant contrast and stand out against the plain background. A bright light lends additional radiance and saturates these primary colours bringing them further forward while the ochre and restrained greens recede. This effect creates a convincing sense of the full dimensionality of space and concentrates our attention on the brightest of objects, in particular the lemons and the curtain revealing the countryside. The colour and the tonal quality of the wall and the landscape are similar so the two seamlessly dissolve into each other. The monochromatic landscape ensures are eyes are kept inside of the room rather than wandering out through the window. The red curtain, however, constantly draws our attention away from the objects on the table and out to the countryside; our eyes restlessly wander across the picture plane finding delight in all that the painter depicted.

Craen arranges objects with a skill of a set designer; although they are scattered and in disarray, the objects are carefully put together and the seeming disorder is very much controlled. The composition is coherent and this synthesis achieved through the balanced distribution of colours (the yellows and reds form a pyramidal shape) and neat overlaps. Despite the large quantity of objects within the frame the sense of spaciousness is preserved; Craen crops the picture to allow the area around the table to enter the frame affording space to the still-life objects and placing them into the wider spatial context. The view onto the landscape which stretches far out of the picture plane further enhances this sense of openness. At the same time, the dangling lemon peel, the small silver platter, and the oyster juice in the far foreground project out into our space, pulling the viewer into the dimensionality of the artwork and thereby creating a greater sense of immediacy and involvement with the image.

Still life with imaginary view is illustrative of the conventional presentation and central themes of the time; it bares features of other artworks of the period so much so that it was originally attributed to another painter, Jan Davidsz de Heem[7] who most likely had a decisive influence upon Craen’s style[8]. In 1645, De Heem painted a very similar composition with a view through the window; a composition that was allegedly invented by De Heem and subsequently imitated by a number of other painters[9]. Other tropes of De Heem’s style – the lustrous colours, “prodigious quantity”[10], spacious composition, and analytic treatment– are also evident in Craen’s painting[11] and so is the fascination with the effects of light and rendering of textures which preoccupied not only De Heem but most of the painters at the time[12].

Banquet Still Life with a View onto a Landscape, about 1645. Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684), Dutch. Oil on panel, 54 x 74 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Banquet Still Life with a View onto a Landscape, about 1645. Oil on panel, 54 x 74 cm. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada.

Like other 17th century still-life paintings, Craen’s Still life with imaginary view depicts objects of rarity that have just been introduced into the Netherlands and are included here for their novelty[13]. Imported lemons, oysters, Venetian glass, silverware, velvet and silk drapery were all commonly seen in the banquet-pieces[14]. Steeped in the atmosphere of luxury, these images of expensive items celebrated prosperity and abundance. In “Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life,” art historian Elizabeth Alice Honig describes this type of images as “the painting as museum”[15] – proud displays of rare and precious objects collected by an artist. Given that what we see in the works is not a plausible meal and that the food items belong to different seasons, it is fair to propose that the painting simply exhibits a collection of commodities[16]. Other scholars have, however, advocated different kinds of readings where still-life paintings such as Craen’s are not merely presentations of objects to be admired but an invitation for their consumption and communal sharing[17]. R.G. Saisselin goes as far as to suggest that the still-life painting in the 17th century Dutch was a form of advertising[18]. When thinking of motives behind the banquet-pieces, it should also be noted that they allowed artists to demonstrate their meticulous technical skills[19], and were, therefore, perhaps “produced, not for the public so much as for the artist’s own sakes, more exactly for the sake of the problems involved in the treatment rather than the subject-matter”[20].

Still Life with a Lobster, late 1640s. Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684), Dutch. Oil on canvas, 25 x 33-1/4 in. The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with a Lobster, late 1640s. Oil on canvas, 25 x 33-1/4 in. The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio. Like Craen’s, this image depicts a number of exotic and expensive items. The image also shares very similar compositional and formal elements with Craen’s still-life: same trajectory of light; diagonal line receding from the upper right to the lower left; arrangement of the wicker basket and table cloth, etc.

Although still-lifes are often considered as merely decorative and simply a pragmatic documentation of an every-day Dutch experience, there are reasons to advance another type of reading – one that proposes greater symbolic value. In ‘The Art of Still-Life Painting’, art historian Herbert Furst writes: “The ideas commonly governing the constituents of such still-life compositions fall naturally into two categories: those which are associated with peace and plenty, costly food and high living, and those which are linked with their opposites – frugality, mortification, war and death”[21]. The concept of vanitas and moment-mori was, indeed, well known to the 17th century Dutch and many of the objects presented in the popular paintings of the time, including the banquets were meant to be read in an allegorical manner, often reminiscent of transience of life and material prosperity and imbued with distressing moralising content. Half peeled lemons, which featured in most of the banquet-pieces were, for instance said to “serve as a call for moderation, warning that life is not only sweet, but sour as well,” while oysters as aphrodisiacs symbolized “the transitory nature of sensual desire”[22]. Considered as such, these objects represent earthly pleasures but also allude to their ephemeral nature. This type of analysis advocates for an allegorical meaning where image expresses abstract philosophical ideas rather than being a mere portrayal of reality and craftsmanship. It functions as a mediator of feelings and emotional efficacy and invites us to go beyond of immediately seen.[23]

Still Life with a Silver Wine Jar and a Reflected Portrait of the Artist, circa 1657. Abraham van Beyeren (1620/21-1690), Dutch. Oil on canvas, 102 x 85 cm. Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund. Acc. No. 60.80 Abraham van Beyeren’s style is significantly darker and more tightly cropped; however, the item he captures are similar to Craen’s: partially carved ham, peeled lemon, silver ewer, wicker basket, venetian glass, velvet drapery, etc. Like Claes, Van Beyeren was fascinated with optical illusions and   reflection of objects on the shiny surfaces.

Abraham van Beyeren, Still Life with a Silver Wine Jar and a Reflected Portrait of the Artist, circa 1657. Oil on canvas, 102 x 85 cm. Abraham van Beyeren’s style is significantly darker and more tightly cropped; however, the item he captures are similar to Craen’s: partially carved ham, peeled lemon, silver ewer, wicker basket, venetian glass, velvet drapery, etc. Like Claes, Van Beyeren was fascinated with optical illusions and reflection of objects on the shiny surfaces.

To understand the symbolic meaning and purpose of these images one must consider the market they were made for. The “new kind of patronage” developed in the 17th century Dutch Republic: the “[p]ainting was no longer primarily the preserve of church or […] wealthy”[24]. The members of the middle class were now in a position to buy artworks and given that this class was considerably large the amount of paintings produced was too. Rather than being commissioned, paintings were first made and then sold “cheaply at fairs, auctions, and lotteries, which became increasingly popular”[25]. The new owners placed their paintings in private homes[26] (rather than mansions or churches) and the smaller sizes were sought which explains the popularity of still-lifes.[27] Perhaps in these small private places, still-life paintings indeed had purely colorful and decorative purpose for the Dutch appreciated the technical dexterity[28] and were truly enamored with the wondrous objects these images so skillfully portrayed[29]. What is more, the paintings had a capacity to preserve and immortalize these otherwise transient objects, postponing the “rot indefinitely”[30] and allowing for the continuous visual, if not palpable enjoyment. However, given that “the vanitas idea underline[d] so many compositions during this century”[31], the people of the time also understood the language of traditional iconography and symbolic meanings conveyed[32]; this allowed them to exercise greater contemplative engagement and reflect on a deeper ethical issues. While the sudden prosperity brought about “intenser passion for the so-called good things in life”[33], anxiety about the moral consequences of wealth also grew and the moderation was sought after as “an ever-present ideal”[34]. In such an atmosphere, the colourful and visually evocative images served both to delight the eye and deliver a sober warning of the transience of worldly possessions and pleasures”[35] and the “emptiness of material pursuit”[36].

Both abundance and urgency can be detected in Craen’s Still life with imaginary view – the rich and enjoyable feast has been suddenly interrupted against man’s will suggesting both the fleeting nature of the enjoyment and man’s inability to prevent its passing[37]. At the same time, the vast landscape in the background, with the canals flowing out to the unknown, implies an insignificance of the material objects in comparison to the sublime in the nature. It is certain that Craen, like other painters of his era, found a great interest and motivation in the formal aspects of representational art – display of craftsmanship and pictorial realism – but his image also carries a broader allegorical content paradigmatic of the 17th century Dutch painting and, therefore, equally legible to its viewers.

[TEXT: IRA FERRIS, July 2014]

REFERENCES:

[1].For further information on the Dutch independence see: National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century (Washington: National Gallery of Art Washington, 2007), 14-30.

[2] “… the extent of intellectual freedom found in the Netherlands drew thinkers from across Europe. Rene Descartes, an emigre from France, for example, found a fertile environment in the Netherlands for ideas that recast the relationship between philosophy and theology, and opened the door to science. Many works on religion, philosophy, or science that would have been too controversial abroad were printed in the Netherlands and secretly exported to other countries. Publishing of materials such as maps, atlases, and musical scores flourished. The Dutch Republic was, in addition, the undisputed technological leader in Europe, first with innovations such as city streetlights and important discoveries in astronomy, optics, botany, biology, and physics.” National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, 29.

[3] “[Still-life painting], constituted a revolt against the ecclesiastic laws which had governed the manufacture of religious art. […] not merely the presence of such “superfluous” objects, but even the lifelike accuracy of representation was in itself revolutionary. The mind during the dark ages accustomed to unrepresentational hieratic art, had come to regard it, no doubt, as natural, and was unused to employing its eyes in accurate observation of Nature. […] first the thinkers, next the artist, and lastly the public, began to […] use their eyes consciously as optical instruments. Representation thus began to be practical and appreciated for its own sake, objectively.” Herbert Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting (London: The Whitefriars Press Ltd, 1927), 49-50.

[4] Mariet Westermann, The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1717, 2nd edition (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2004), 167.

[5]Flemish still life painting can be classified into several categories. The still lifes are classified by objects or subject, organization of objects, and technique. The divisions are not all inclusive; many still life works could fall into more than one category. […] Sixteenth and seventeenth century Flemish still life painting can be classified into kitchen, banquet, breakfast, peasant interior, and fish scenes; floral, smoking, flora and fauna, pronk, and illusionist still lifes, the gamepiece, and the Vanita. […] The banquet scene displayed lavish dishes and place settings, crystal and silver; plentiful and sometimes exotic foods were pictured.” Dorothy Mahon, “A New Look at a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 51, no. 3 (Winter, 1993-1994): 17.

[6] “In the seventeenth century, still-life painters continued to be fascinated with the optical effects of mirrors and highly polished surfaces. The shining silver vessels and smooth glass faces of roemers and flagons often reveal a more intimate view of the artist’s studio. Usually the spectator can discern only the skylight or side window, but some artists also took a special pride in adding reflected images of themselves.” Scott A. Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 61, no. 8 (October, 1974): 278.

[7] The painting was attributed to Craen in 2002 by Fred G. Meijer, Senior Curator Old Dutch and Flemish Painting at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. “The painting in Sydney was attributed to Craen by me, on the basis of a photo, in 2002. It [Still life with imaginary view] bears many characteristics of signed still lifes by the artist and it is related to works by Jan Dz. de Heem from the mid-1640s. In my view, it must be a relatively early work by Craen.” Fred G. Meijer, email interview by Ira Ferris, May 12, 2014.

[8] Craen was strongly inspired by the work of De Heem from the years 1645/46; perhaps at that time a student of De Heem in Antwerp, but there are as yet no evidence found in the written sources.” RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. “Laurens Craen,” last viewed May 17, 2014, http://explore.rkd.nl/en/explore/artists/18936.

[9] As stated on the Art Galley of NSW placard adjoining the Still life with imaginary view painting: “The compositional type with a view through a window in the background and the characteristic treatment of the still life were invented by De Heem, but continued in use among numerous followers and imitators.”

[10] “The thing to be noted for our purposes is the prodigious quantity as well as the variety of the objects. Everything was done, especially in the Netherlands, between spells of ascetic frugality, on a quantitatively as well as qualitatively lavish scale.” Herbert Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting (London: The Whitefriars Press Ltd, 1927), 58.

[11] “The more monumental, open compositions of the Flemish – their brighter palette and richer, ornamental arrangements – were adopted by De Heem in his works of the early forties…” Scott A. Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 61, no. 8 (October, 1974): 271.

[12] “Galileo and his telescope led not only to new astronomical investigations, but caused painters to study the quality and the effects of light.” Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 53.

[13] For the information on the silver ewer see Scott A. Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 61, no. 8 (October, 1974): 275.
The information about the Venetian glass can be found in Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” 275.
Describing a work by another still-life painter of the period, Herbert Furst writes: “There is little doubt that these expensive luxuries were the means by which he [Willem Kalf] endeavoured to interest his public: they were the “subject” of his still life. The Chinese porcelain was then an object d’art of greater curiosity if not of greater price than it is now,,,” Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 88.

[14] For the information on the objects that commonly appeared in the banquet-pieces, see E.P. Richardson, “Two Still Life Paintings From Haarlem,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts of the City of Detroit 20, no. 2 (November, 1940): 15-17.
In “Still-Life Paintings in a Consumer Society,” R.G. Saisselin suggest that in the age of the classical still life, the few isolated objects chosen by painters became privileged, made worthy of attention, raised to the level of beauty…” R.G. Saisselin, “Still-Life Paintings in a Consumer Society,” Leonardo 9, no. 3 (Summer, 1976): 203.

[15]It could be described, grandiosely and anachronistically, as “the painting as museum”; what it essentially involves is a link between still life and the mentality of collecting.” Elizabeth Alice Honig, “Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life,” Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 34 (Autumn, 1998): 176.

[16] “… a specimens from different seasons were often included in the same composition.” Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” 275.

[17] Elizabeth Alice Honig, “Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life,” Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 34 (Autumn, 1998): 174.

[18]However, the use of images to sell a product is anything but new and still-life painting was potentially advertising from the moment that it was secularized. If much secular (that is, non-vanity) still-life painting escaped this fate in the past, it is because society was not wholly governed by commercial considerations. […]One may call it a pre-literary advertisement: the objects are used as in attribute pictures but one cannot say that they induce the viewer to consume. It merely indicates an activity and the product of that activity. The modern advertisement is far more insistent for it is meant to move viewers to make a purchase.” Saisselin, “Still-Life Paintings in a Consumer Society,” 180.

[19] “It is obvious that the real reason for this picture is the delight which the painter took in the cubic pattern made by the volumes placed one on top of the other and at different angles. Here were problems of recession, in fact, of volume, to be solved together with problems of light.” Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 71. “All these painters are distinct from any of those we have so far considered, because there was behind their art no decorative purpose; even the associative ideas, [….], were manifestly subordinated to the pleasure of rendering thing as the physical eye saw them.” Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 81.

[20] Herbert Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting (London: The Whitefriars Press Ltd, 1927), 71.

[21] Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 54.

[22] John Baldessari, “Learn,” In Still Life, last viewed May 18, 2014. http://in-still-life.com/learn.php.

[23] Insights on the allegorical meaning of the still-life painting were gained in the Robert Wellington’s lecture at the University of Sydney on May 5th 2014. Robert Wellington, “The French Academy” (lecture, University of Sydney, Sydney, May 5, 2014).
In The Art of Still Life Painting, Herbert Furst also writes: “…the Flemings and Dutch, like the Italians before them, were familiar with and fond of allegory…” Furst , The Art of Still Life Painting, 60.

[24]Foreigners who visited the Netherlands in the seventeenth century were amazed at the Dutch fondness for pictures. In 1640, British traveler Peter Mundy observed: “As for the art of Painting and the affection of the people to Pictures, I think none other go beyond them…. In addition to well-off merchants, Mundy reported bakers, cobblers, butchers, and blacksmiths as avid art collectors. This was a new kind of patronage. Painting was no longer primarily the preserve of church or aristocracy or even the very wealthy. It was a change that would shape Dutch art—the types of pictures produced, the manner in which they were made and sold, and their appearance. […] A remarkable number of pictures of extraordinary quality were produced during the Dutch Golden Age. Estimates put the number of works in the millions. […] It was not uncommon for a wealthy citizen to own ten or fifteen paintings, in addition to prints and large maps.” National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, 33.

[25] National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, 39-40.

[26] “Still lives found a place within a private universe, even more intimate than a private gallery.” Saisselin, “Still-Life Paintings in a Consumer Society,” 181.

[27] The middle class became patrons of still lifes because the size allowed them to hang the paintings in their small apartments.” David A. Petit, “A Historical Overview and French Still Life Painting: A Guide for the Classroom,” Art Education 41, no. 5 (September, 1988): 14.

[28] “an affluent clientele who could appreciate […] the skillful rendering of such subjects.” Jennifer Meagher, “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400-1800,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, last viewed May 17, 2014. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm.

[29] “… what to us now seem but common everyday objects –[…] – were looked upon with curiosity and wonder, and […] with associations differing very much from ours. The still-lifes that were constructed with the aid of these objects thus evoked sensations and interests of which the casual observer of to-day cannot be aware.” Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 54.

[30] Mariet Westermann, The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1717, 2nd edition (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2004), 140.

[31] Furst, The Art of Still Life Painting, 65.

[32] In The Art of the Dutch Republic, Mariet Westermann writes: “The vigorous circulation of pictures in the Republic suggest that many of these viewers were visually literate as well, attuned to the special pleasures of pictorial representation.” Westermann, The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1717, 67.

[33] Furst, The Art of Still Life, 55.

[34] Westermann, The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1717, 128.

[35] Writing about Van Beyeren’s work, Scott A. Sullivan suggests: “The rich and sumptuous arrangement was meant not only to engage and delight the patron but also to remind him of the transience of human life and the vanity.” Sullivan, “A Banquet-Piece with Vanitas Implications,” 280..

[36] National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, 87.

[37] “Paintings in which […] 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.” National Gallery of Art Washington, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, 87.

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2 thoughts on “Still Life in the Dutch Golden Age

  1. Thanks – enjoyable and, unlike most art commentaries today, informative and factual. I wanted enlightment on the painting formerly attrib t oJ D de Heem and found it and much more.

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