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On my easel: Still life with chiaroscuro ( it’s not bacon!)

I’ve started doing still lives and abstracts again. My still lives is (sort of) an attempt to keep to the style of the old Dutch masters like Vermeer, Frans Halz, Willem Claeszoon Heda and my favourite….Willem Kalf


Still lives are a great opportunity to display skill in painting textures and surfaces in great detail and with realistic light effects. Food of all kinds laid out on a table, silver cutlery, intricate patterns and subtle folds in table cloths and flowers all challenged painters.
What I am trying to do is to include my own ‘style’ of colour, palette knife and textures and combine that with the classic effect of chiaroscuro. (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition)
Several types of subject were recognised: banketje were “banquet pieces”, ontbijtjes simpler “breakfast pieces”. Virtually all still lifes had a moralistic message, usually concerning the brevity of life – this is known as the vanitas theme – implicit even in the absence of an obvious symbol like a skull, or less obvious one such as a half-peeled lemon (like life, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste).

WILLEM KALF (1622-1693)

‘Still Life with Drinking Horn’, 1653 (oil on canvas)
THE CLASSIC DUTCH STILL LIFE
‘Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar’, 1669 (oil on canvas)

'Still Life with Drinking Horn, 1653 (oil on canvas)
WILLEM KALF (1622-1693)
Willem Kalf was one of the greatest Dutch masters of a type of still life painting called ‘pronkstilleven’, a term that could be translated as ‘ostentatious still life’. These still lives displayed an array of luxurious possessions that reflected the lifestyle of the wealthy in seventeenth century Holland. Venetian glass, Chinese porcelain and Turkish carpets bedecked with ornamental gold and silverware were painted as status symbols, to be hung in the homes of the affluent patrons who commissioned them. However the choice of objects was not always for spectacle alone as they sometimes carried a symbolic significance. Although only the rich could afford such rare artefacts, which were usually imported from distant lands, their inclusion in a painting could be interpreted as a patriotic tribute to the prosperity of Dutch trade. The inclusion of citrus fruits alongside wine is often read as encouraging moderation in the use of alcohol, as lemon juice was added to wine to reduce its potency and for medicinal effect.
'Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar, 1669
WILLEM KALF (1622-1693)
‘Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar’ is a typical example of Kalf’s mature work which was painted in Amsterdam, where he finally settled in 1653. His works of this period are remarkably similar in style. They all depict a collection of rare or expensive objects, usually combined with exotic foods and arranged on a tabletop against a very dark background. Kalf was also an art dealer who had easy access to many of the the ‘objets d’art’ that appear in his still lifes. Consequently some of these items often reappear in different works. For example, you can see the Turkish rug, silver tray and the ornamental knife from ‘Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar’in many other paintings of his Amsterdam period.
‘Still Life with a Chinese Porcelain Jar’ is not simply a painting of luxurious objects, it is a luxurious object in itself, even more desirable than the items it depicts. Kalf painted the picture to display his skills as an artist and to demonstrate a level of craftsmanship that surpasses the quality of his subject matter.
At this time, realistic representation in art was valued as a measure of artistic quality, but Kalf pushes his image beyond mere technique. He adjusts the lighting across the painting to extract as much drama as possible from the subject. The overall light for the picture comes from the top left but he has heightened and dampened certain areas to control the effects of texture, pattern, tone and colour within the composition. He subdues the tones of the Venetian glassware (probably Dutch copies) whose transparent forms are picked out of the darkness with reflections and refractions of light. To counterbalance their delicate appearance, he intensifies the light on the Ming jar and fruit. This has the effect of heightening both their pattern and texture. The jar, which is emblazoned with a bold blue and white pattern, also subtly reflects the surrounding objects in the gloss of its glaze, while the lemon, whose waxy skin spirals down from its juicy segments, echoes the design on the Chinese jar. Throughout the composition Kalf continues to manipulate light and shade to tune the pitch of pattern and texture across the work. Twisting baroque decoration resonates through each object: the ornamental stems of the glassware, the rippling rim of the silver tray which is repeated in miniature on the lid of the little chronometer or compass, the tendrils of pattern on the porcelain jar, the hand-woven design on the the rug, the marbling on the stone table top and finally, the carefully arranged coil of lemon rind.
This is a classic Dutch still life from the Baroque period which emphasizes the grandeur that appealed to the merchant classes in 17th century Holland.
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