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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Willem Kalf

Still Life with Drinking-Horn of St. Sebastians Archers' Guild, 1653, Willem Kalf
I'm not a believer in reincarnation but there are times... I am a painter of still-lifes and I never pass one by without giving it a second glance. I don't care if it's a Sunday painter piece hanging on snow fence at an "art in the park" show or a William Harnett in the National Gallery, they all deserve a moment of silent contemplation. They roughly break down into two groups, the "I could do that" category and "WOW!" The latter group get somewhat more than a second glance. The other day I was loitering in Walden's Book Store, wearing thin the pages of books I couldn't afford to buy when I stumbled onto the work of a Dutch still-life artist that made the old eyes pop. Dutch artists and Dutch still-lifes are the creme-de-la-creme of the genre, but this guy was the creme-de-la-creme of the creme-de-la-creme. The painting had the enormous title, Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the St. Sebastian Archers' Guild.  (With a title like that it had better be pretty spectacular.) It was weird. I had the feeling I had painted it.
Willem Kalf

The artist was Willem Kalf, and quite frankly, I'd never heard of him. As the title insists, one major aspect, dominating the entire upper half of the painting is a magnificent hollow horn, lavishly adorned with silver, supported upon a triumvirate of silver figures, the drinking edge topped by a golden brim. It's a spectacular creation. But the thing that caught my eye was not the baroque splendor of the horn but the equally baroque splendor of the magnificent red lobster sprawled out deliciously across a polished silver tray. And I don't even like lobster. Okay, I think they're beautifully ugly creatures to look at, and I once painted one in a fish-flavored still-life of my own, but this big guy really stole the show. The contrast between the manmade and the God-made is no contest. The lobster wins, hands down. That would seem to be as the artist intended.
Wine Glass on a Gilded Silver Foot  and
Bowl of Fruit, 1663, Willem Kalf

Kalf was born in 1619. Not much is known of his early life until he landed in Paris in 1642, not to study art apparently, since there's nothing at all French about his work, but to ply his trade as a painter. He stayed there five years then moved back home, settling in Hoom and finally in Amsterdam in 1653. His still-lifes are not hard to identify. They would seem to be the high-water mark of Baroque still-life painting. They're mostly vertical, featuring deep, dark, shadowy backgrounds and brilliantly lit foregrounds, of priceless, timeless objects--silver, gold, cut glass, and rich tapestry. Some of his exquisite glassware appears in more than one still-life. Imposed upon these icons of material exuberance are the temporal things, succulent fruit, drink, bread, and seafood, carefully arranged to look momentary in their glittering existence. Every single one of his works I've found since my ethereal Walden experience have a trademark half-peeled lemon, the rind dangling from the fruit, often hanging over the edge of the table. The "Horn with Lobster," as I call it for convenience, ranks at the top of my "WOW" wish-I-could-do-that list.  Did I do it?  Probably not.  But seldom have I felt such an affinity with a painting.
Still Life with Jug (detail), 1655-57, Willem Kalf

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