Just as Melanie Gifford expected, the rooms were dark at the Musée de Tessé, an art museum in the French city of Le Mans. She had counted on the electricity being cut off.
An art thief intent on lifting an old master? No, Melanie is a research conservator at the National Gallery of Art. She was at the French museum to solve a mystery that for decades had been hiding in plain sight.
As had been arranged, a generator fed a bank of lights in the room that held her quarry. Bright beams illuminated a massive canvas. The painting — an opulent still life of shiny armor, glittering jewels and gold-fringed fabric — was painted by a 17th-century Dutch artist named Willem Kalf.
That, at least, is what the label said.
Not long ago, I was at the National Gallery with Melanie and Arthur Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings. We were in Gallery M-51, at the new exhibit “Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst.”
Like Kalf, Van Aelst (1627-83) was a Dutchman and a painter of still lifes: flowers in vases, fruit in baskets, freshly killed rabbits and pheasants. Five years ago, Arthur got the green light to mount the first-ever van Aelst exhibit, in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
An art exhibit is more than just a bunch of paintings on the wall. It’s an opportunity to write a biography not only of the artist but of his works: the sort of paint he used, how he applied it, the context in which the work was created. It fell to Melanie and her colleagues to learn as much as they could about van Aelst.
“I don’t like to look at an artist in a vacuum,” Melanie said. “I want to look at how he was trained, who else he was looking at, how he was competing with his fellow artists.”
Van Aelst studied in Delft, then went to Paris. He perfected his technique there and moved to Italy, where he counted some of the Medicis among his clients. He was known for his ambition — and his arrogance. How arrogant? In one still life, van Aelst included a likeness of a golden medallion by the French sculptor Jean Warin, except van Aelst replaced Warin’s initials with his own.
As Melanie and her colleagues studied van Aelst, they saw him evolve from simple works — a pair of peaches and some grapes on a shelf — to what the Dutch called pronk, a word that means ornate.
Remember Kalf? He had basically invented pronk, which appealed to rich patrons as a way to flaunt their wealth. Van Aelst became adept at it, too, especially in depicting the golden fringe on sumptuous fabrics. Melanie came to recognize his brush strokes, his thready lines, his dotted highlights.
As Melanie studied Kalf and his influence on van Aelst, she consulted photographs of the painting in Le Mans. It was unsigned — not uncommon back then — but for nearly 200 years had been attributed to Kalf. Yet it seemed so familiar that Melanie wondered how well she really knew van Aelst. Had he just stolen everything from Kalf, so much so that his work was nearly identical to this large painting in Le Mans?
Of course, there was another possibility.
Last summer, Melanie was in France. She had one free day and was determined to check out the Kalf in Le Mans. Unfortunately, the Le Mans curator told her, the electricity would be off as the entire museum was rewired. Perhaps they could set up a generator and some lamps for her visit?
And so, on June 11, 2011, Melanie approached the painting, her magnifying monocular in hand. The first thing she did was peer at a medal in the painting, the same Jean Warin medal.
“At the very bottom, merging from the shadows, is a V and an A, for [van Aelst’s] initials,” she said. “Once I saw that, that clinched it for me.”
But she had to be sure. She worked methodically through the painting. Everything she saw matched the style of van Aelst. “I went to my hotel and sent frantic e-mails saying this is a winner,” Melanie said.
In the art world, it’s a big deal to prove a reattribution. “Pronk Still-Life With Armor” became a last-minute addition to the National Gallery’s van Aelst exhibit — and its centerpiece.
Over the years, van Aelst sort of fell out of fashion. Kalf became the better-known artist. The reattribution of the painting could be seen as a demotion, but it sets the record straight — and could lead to a resurgence in interest in van Aelst.
I imagine him smiling down from the heavens, glad to see credit finally put back where it belongs.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.