Born in 1619 in Rotterdam, Willem Kalf was one of the most celebrated of all sill-life painters. In 1642-46 he worked in Paris. On his return to the Netherlands he lived in Hoorn and then in 1653 settled in Amsterdam. His early works were modest kitchen and courtyard scenes, but he soon became the outstanding exponent of a type of still-life in which fruit and precious objects – porcelain, oriental rugs, Venetian glass – are arranged in grand Baroque displays.
His pictures have often been compared with those of Vermeer because of his masterly handling of texture and his ability to manipulate warm and cool colours (he frequently contrasts the reddish browns in a carpet with the yellow of a peeled lemon and the blue and white of porcelain).
Still-life painting occasionally registers the pride that contemporaries took in global trade and colonial endeavour. Like the botanical gardens and finest collections, still-lifes gathered disparate objects from all reaches of Dutch trade, and brought them home, re-presenting them in European terms of science and collecting, without specific concern about their origin. In the painting of fine household items, Still-Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar, Willem Kalf effortlessly combined Venetian and Dutch glassware, a recently made Chinese jar for luxury ginger, a Dutch silver dish, a Mediterranean peach, and a half-peeled lemon, the object of citrus trade and of medicinal treatises. He displayed them on an Indian floral carpet, in a dramatic spotlight that invites contemplation and admiration, for the fine wares as well as the artist’s recrafting of them. Kalf’s jewel technique evokes their value and unifies them in an arrangement, that, however lifelike for each individual object, is clearly pictorial.
Above: The middle axis of this painting is formed by a roemer wine glass with an elaborate handle. Placed in front of a dark niche, it is partly lit by the small amount of light that shines on it. The light is also refracted by the transparent glass and the wine itself. On the marble table there are three bergamot or Seville oranges and a lemon. Jutting out over the table’s edge, a knife with a polished agate handle protrudes through the bright yellow lemon peel, and the porous strip of skin, peeled off in one piece, curls around like a festoon, forming a decorative counterpart to the narrow pointed orange leaves. Showing sweet and sour citrus fruits together in this way, the artist symbolically admonishes the viewer to be temperate and to add lemon and orange juice to wine, as they were considered to have medicinal, humoral and pathological properties.
Kalf’s paintings are among the most sophisticated of Dutch still-lifes. Taking a much more Baroque and decorative approach than Heda, he filled his paintings with sumptuous and exquisite objects which would only have been found in the most aristocratic and wealthy circles.
Above: This canvas show a still-life with silver, pewter and gilt objects on a partly draped table. It is an early work by Kalf showing the influence of Jan Jansz. den Uyl.
Above: One of the most characteristic types of painting in Holland in the seventeenth century was still-life which was brought to a higher level of refinement there than anywhere else in Europe. Some still-lifes have symbolic meanings – the vanity of earthly wealth – but others, including those of the greatest practitioner of this genre, Willem Kalf, seem to be simply pronkstilleven, lavish displays of ceramics, glassware, gold and silver vessels as well as exotic food. They reflect a new willingness of rich Dutchmen to parade their possessions, an attitude which would have been frowned upon by an earlier, more puritanical generation.
Kalf was born in Rotterdam and probably trained in the studio of François Ryckhals in Middelburg, a town with a long established tradition of still-life painting. Subsequently he lived for some years in Paris where he met Flemish still-life artists, whose painterly style softened the linearity of Kalf’s earliest manner. Kalf returned to Rotterdam but settled in Amsterdam in 1653 with his wife Cornelia Pluvier, a distinguished glassengraver, poetess and musician.
In the following year Kalf was praised by the poet Jan Vos as one of the city’s leading painters: he was much sought after by prosperous citizens anxious to record their treasures. This particular painting includes a richly decorated nautilus cup and a Wan-Li bowl, which were no doubt prized possessions of the unknown Amsterdammer who commissioned the still-life.