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.
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?
Van Aelst’s work, at its best, dramatizes the missing human presence that defines still life. One sees the knife handle but not the blade, the dead bird but not the hunter, the walnut shell but not the nut cracker. A pair of paintings made for Giovan Carlo de Medici, a wealthy, dissipated cardinal of the Catholic Church, are both stuffed with dead animals, each one silent about its meaning, if they mean anything at all. But taken together they begin to have a strange hum to them, the one on the left (with its grisly, flayed turkey carcass, animal skin and ram’s head) suggesting something violent, primitive and pagan, while the one on the right (with its exquisitely rendered white cloth and dead game) is strangely tragic, even Christian in its undertones.
Still-life painting is also about pure virtuosity, and the strides van Aelst made between the first work on display, a small 1646 oil on copper depicting fruit, and a nearby 1659 still life with a complex wine glass with reflection, are striking. In the latter, the reflection in the wine glass offers a world within the world of the painting, a small-scale architectural marvel complete with a shadowy image of the artist himself. Van Aelst was a showman, proud of his talents, and never stingy with the visual stunts — the glistening drops of water on a grape, the trompe l’oeil sheen on metal. The 1659 work is also signed, with a flourish of fine calligraphy, “Guillmo van Aelst,” proof of the artist’s self-identification or self-promotion as an Italian master.
Van Aelst was not the only artist making highly loaded still-life works, stuffed with the Dutch embarrassment of riches. In nearby galleries, one finds the larger Dutch context for understanding his work. But more than other artists before him, he seemed particularly conscious of space, of ways to define and transgress invisible lines and boundaries within a painting, suggesting allusions to other kinds of boundaries and transgression. Things dangle and drip, spill over the tops of tables and into the foreground of the picture. Fish and finery cohabit, and flowers that have no business being in bloom at the same time of year explode together in color. Bas reliefs carved on furniture, almost illegible in the darkness of the lesser reaches of a painting, seem tempted to move into space not allowed them by the rules of realism. His flowers luxuriate in the confined world of his paintings in a way strikingly different than earlier painters, where they’re often rendered more formally, sometimes straight on, or in tightly wrought formations. Flowers, particularly expensive white and red-streaked tulips, were luxury goods, but they wear their finery with a knowing, almost louche ease, stretching out inside the boundaries of the painted space.
Mysterious niches — luxury watches turned to show their mechanism rather than their allegorically loaded faces — and mice (possibly a reference to the devil through a complicated metaphor borrowed from St. Augustine) invite elusive explanations. Van Aelst’s limited world turns out to be microscopically panoramic.
As with recent NGA exhibitions devoted to Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch and Judith Leyster, “Elegance and Refinement: The Still Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst” feels neat and contained, about the right size for its material, and focused on a genus and an artist that needs and merits the attention.
“Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst” is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Oct. 14. For information, visit www.nga.gov.