There's no better way to enter "Still Life With Roemer, Tazza, and Watch" at the National Gallery of Art than by following the lemon peel that twists down from the tabletop. Climb it like a stair.
The picture is on wood. Pieter Claesz of Haarlem painted it in 1636.
Knobby on the outside, pulpy on the inside, the sunlit twist of yellow rind seems to curl into the room. Proffered to the eye like a scented invitation, it beckons you to rise into the painted world above, a world that's just like this one -- only more serene, more suggestive, more superb.
Claesz (1596/97-1660) painted lots of lemon peels. The customers who frequented his street-side shop in Haarlem, the ship owners and brewers and more successful merchants, most of them now Protestant, apparently expected them. Twenty-eight of Claesz's pictures have been borrowed for the show -- "Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life" -- on view in the West Building, and ribbons of rind spiral out of most.
Some were cut so thin that the daylight shines right through them. Everything we see has been uncannily intensified: that partly eaten bread roll, the walnuts on the linen cloth, the plump green brine-wet olives on the pewter plate, the watch case and the wineglass. And it isn't just your vision that makes these painted objects so eerily convincing. Other senses are involved.
The starchiness of the linen, the smoothness of the roemer (a thick-stemmed goblet of green glass), the sharpness of the knife: Your mind is meant to touch these things. It also hears the ticking watch, and tastes the Rhenish wine, the walnuts and the olives. And citrus scents the air.
The foodstuffs are familiar; the serving pieces, too. "Breakfast piece" is what the Dutch called these paintings. But Claesz's little picture isn't really about breakfast. It's about higher things.
Its first theme is abundance. No lemons grow in Holland. No olives either. Like the tazza on the right (that ornate Italian chalice tumbled on its side), these must have been imported. Bread so white cost plenty, too -- poorer folk made do with brown.
And no one needs a still life. While humble in its size, and modest in its subject, this picture is unquestionably deluxe.
It's also about accuracy. For a people like the Dutch, who sent their wooden ships to Africa and Asia, immaculate precision in measuring and mapping and the grinding of glass lenses was crucially important, and one feels that in this art.
Claesz's little paintings feel fastened to the world. The viewer somehow knows that the painter must have set on a table by his easel pewter plates and walnut shells just like those we see. To make this point explicit the National Gallery has borrowed jugs and books, wineglasses and watches, much like those depicted in the paintings on the walls.
One prop on display is an ornate lidded silver cup made in 1605 in honor of Saint Martin, patron saint of Haarlem's brewers. Thirty-six years later they ordered a Claesz still life that depicts the cup precisely. Here the cup and its tall portrait (borrowed from the collection of Teresa Heinz Kerry) are displayed side by side.
"Still Life With Roemer, Tazza, and Watch" also cites the sacred, although by implication. The holy is suggested by its stillness, harmony and order, and the proffering of daily bread, and the shining of the light.
And it cites God in a way, empty of idolatry, that would not have offended even those fierce Calvinists who saw it as their duty to whitewash Catholic frescoes, throw down saintly statues and hurl stones through old stained glass.
John Calvin wrote: "Let those who have abundance remember that they are surrounded with thorns, and let them take great care not to be pricked by them." The broken empty walnut shells, the interrupted meal, the sharp blade and the fallen cup, these are warnings, too.
The citizens of Haarlem who bought such pictures mostly put them on their walls in precisely the same places where, not so long before, they would have shown a Bible scene, a portrait of the Virgin or an image of a saint. Here the sacred is subtler. But it is surely there, although more sensed than seen.
In a curious and effective way, God's invisibility is also present in the image. Just take another look at its upper left quadrant. There is nothing there.
Except, of course, His presence. If saying grace at dinner visibly transformed the objects on your tabletop, the meal set before you might look as numinous as this.
What is missing is His wrath, which the 17th-century Dutch feared for good reasons. Harsh religious wars, shipwreck, fire, flood, hideous diseases and financial insecurities plagued their pious times.
When the painter moved to Haarlem in 1621 (Claesz was born in Antwerp), the Dutch city was booming. But plague swept through in 1637. War with England followed. By the middle of the century the economy had crashed. So did the painter's fortunes. His first wife succumbed to plague. His prosperity dissolved. When he died, in 1660, he left behind so little that his 12-year-old twin daughters were entrusted to the orphanage. You wouldn't know it from this art.
Claesz's still life nowadays seems a sort of miracle, but Dutch still lifes of this quality really aren't rare at all. Straight depictive painting had never been so good before, and has not been bettered since.
Most museum-goers know a few of the Dutch masters -- Rembrandt and Vermeer, of course, and Frans Hals of the dashing brush, and Sir Anthony Van Dyck -- but Holland boasted hundreds of wonderfully skilled painters, the so-called Little Masters. Most have been for far too long veiled by obscurity. Pieter Claesz is one of these.
Until 1883, when digging art detectives found him mentioned in old records, Claesz had no identity. Before then he was known only, from the letters in his monogram with which he signed some pictures, as the Master P.C.
Even when we know their names, most of us can't tell one Dutch painter from another. Other still life painters -- Osias Beert the Elder, Willem Claesz Heda, Gerret Willemsz Heda, Floris van Dijck and Roelof Koets -- also are represented in the gallery's exhibition, but their names add to our confusion. They're a hassle to remember, and a problem to pronounce.
(Claesz, which sounds like Claas, is, confusingly, a contraction. Don't let that sz throw you. Claesz means Claus's son.)
You have to use your eyes. Here Washington is fortunate. A good part of the credit goes to curator Arthur J. Wheelock Jr., who, one by one, down through the years, has been bringing these Dutch masters to the gallery. The Claesz show is the latest. Three museums organized it: the Frans Hals Museum of Haarlem, the Kunsthaus in Zurich and the National Gallery, which doesn't even own a Claesz.
This show, already seen in Switzerland and the Netherlands, will not travel elsewhere. You can see it only here.
Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life will remain on view in the National Gallery's West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. The Washington showing is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and a grant from Greg and Candy Fazakerley. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information call 202-737-4215. Admission is free.