As far as we know, Willem van Aelst never painted a landscape, portrait or history scene. He focused on still life, meticulous pictures of flowers, fish, armor and dead game, often arrayed on a table or marble slab, with drapery or cloth slightly pulled or rumpled in such a way as to add a studied theatricality to the image. He favored mice, from time to time, and insects, and sumptuous pocket watches often make an appearance, invoking ideas of time, timelessness and things that are time-intensive, such as painting still life.
Van Aelst is the subject of a 28-painting exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, most of it neatly contained in the low-ceilinged, intimate spaces of the West Building’s Dutch cabinet galleries. Born in Delft in 1627, van Aelst is hardly the household name of his near contemporary, Vermeer, also from Delft. Nor are his subjects as immediately evocative as the moody rooms, soft fabrics and enigmatic domestic dramas favored by Vermeer. Van Aelst is about something very different — a highly polished and precise world of densely loaded juxtapositions and objects that taunt the viewer with the possibility of wider meanings and allegories. Van Aelst does to material things what some mischievous hosts will do to people: Invite the high and low, the narcissists and the inverts, put them in a small space and then see whether sparks fly.
(Courtesy Musees du Mans, Le Mans/ERICH LESSING CULTURE AND FINE ARTS ARCHIVES) - Willem van Aelst. ‘Pronk Still Life with Armor,’ 1651 oil on canvas. Musees du Mans, Le Mans.
(Courtesy Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) - Willem van Aelst. ‘Flowers in a Silver Vase,’ 1663 oil on canvas. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Hermann Schuelein
The exhibition, first seen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, opens just outside the cabinet galleries, intimate rooms designed for small paintings, installed at the behest of the National Gallery’s curator of Northern Baroque paintings, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., in 1995. Several of van Aelst’s largest and most flamboyant paintings are seen in one of the main Dutch gallery rooms, a large-scaled antechamber to the show which slightly skews the chronology but underscores the basic arc of his career. Although born in Delft, van Aelst traveled to Paris and Florence before returning to Amsterdam in 1657. In France his work acquired refinement and finish, and in Italy he worked for the Medici. The big, richly colored, often glittering works in the first room advertise the show for passersby in the gallery much as the particular flair for painting luxury he acquired abroad became van Aelst’s calling card as an artist throughout his career. In some cases, it’s likely that the gold objects, the pitchers and nautilus shell cups came from the collections of his Medici patrons.
These “pronk” still-life paintings (loaded with high-end objects), with their detail, tiny spots of paint suggesting gold fringe and the play of light on myriad surfaces hard and soft, transparent and opaque, open up a catalogue of questions about illusionism. Isn’t it odd, perverse even, that men who owned the real thing wanted pictures of their house wares and domestic goods? Have these objects become more beautiful than the real thing? Does the picture celebrate and memorialize the object, or unmask the vanity and hollowness of ownership?