There's an inherent contradiction in the term "still life," a taut and tautological little phrase whose two halves teem with life -- and its opposite. Nowhere is this unity of opposites more apparent than in the still lifes of Pieter Claesz (1596/1597-1660), a Dutch painter whose exquisite work is on view at the National Gallery of Art in a showcase of 28 paintings both large and small, and both sumptuous and subtly subtextual.
When you reach the end of "Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life" -- it's only four small rooms, but it's easy to get lost in one of his tabletop arrangements of food and drink -- you will be more acutely aware, both of life's pleasures and its fragility.
The pleasure part is most obvious.
Celebrating, in large part, the affluence of a certain segment of early 17th-century Dutch society, Claesz's paintings of meals (traditionally grouped into "breakfast" and "banquet" classifications) are rife with expensive imported goodies: half-peeled lemons, glistening olives, rolled-up cylinders of pepper. A master, as the show's title promises, at rendering light and texture, as well as an innovator in the more intimate way he brought the viewer closer to the table's level, Claesz painted food that dazzles more than the eye. In piles of ripening fruit, platters of golden roast capons, fresh oysters, pink shrimp and savory herring, in bowls of strange-looking candy and scattered nuts, loaves of crusty bread and glasses of wine, Claesz's pictures intoxicate the senses. If the National Gallery opened a gourmet shop near the show's exit, it would make a killing.
A third classification, known as "smoking" pictures, sings the praises of a good pipe.
Yet along with these three sub-genres, Claesz, like many still-life painters before and after him, also painted vanitas still lifes: paintings whose central figures are not foodstuffs but human skulls, and other visual allusions to death. From time to time, the shadow of mortality hangs over even those paintings that are not, technically, vanitas pieces. Tick-tick-ticking watches, overturned goblets and jugs, almanacs and dwindling candles crop up even in the artist's party scenes, serving as peripheral reminders of the passage of time. They are, in a sense, tacit versions of the motto, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die."
A seemingly haphazard arrangement of objects belies the careful, formal composition of Claesz's work. Plates and knives are scattered about; loaves are left partly uneaten; a mince pie sits with a serving spoon sticking out of it. On the one hand, these scenes suggest, as the wall text says, a meal in progress, one in which we are invited to partake. "Mmm-mmm! Dig in," the works say. On the other hand, the interrupted feasts hint at meals abandoned in haste, as though whoever was in the middle of enjoying them was called away unexpectedly.
That sobering reminder need not spoil the dish. Rather, it seems to enhance it here, like the spices Claesz depicts.
At some point, each of us will be called away from the table. Knowing this, and being reminded of how flavorful -- and how fleeting -- its offerings can be, only makes the meal taste better.
PIETER CLAESZ: MASTER OF HAARLEM STILL LIFE Through Dec. 31 at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, Constitution Avenue at Sixth Street NW (Metro: Archives-Navy Memorial). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). www.nga.gov. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays from 11 to 6. Free.