- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

“Small Wonders: Dutch Still Lifes by Adriaen Coorte” at the National Gallery of Art could be the sleeper exhibit of the season. It’s certainly the summer’s surprise show.

Organized by the gallery to celebrate its first acquisition of a Coorte painting, “Still Life with Asparagus and Red Currants” (1696), the display is the first in the United States to showcase this compelling, largely unknown, artist.

Coorte (active 1683-1707) could be called “the Vermeer of Dutch 17th-century still life” for his luminosity, universality, mysteriousness and surrealism, which rival those of his compatriot, one of the greatest of the Dutch 17th century masters. Curated by the gallery’s Arthur Wheelock, the exhibit gathers 19 of Coorte’s most representative and rare paintings.

The displayed works include both early works from the 1680s, when the artist was still searching for a subject and style (“A Wooded Rocky Landscape with Swimming Ducks,” “Vanitas Still Life in a Niche”), and his later, more realized groupings of bunches of asparagus, shells, wild strawberries, red currants, gooseberries, chestnuts, red cherries and peaches set on cracked stone ledges.

The latter works, from the 1690s and early 1700s, are reservedly sensuous and positively optimistic, paintings that rejoice in nature’s beauty and bounty. The succulent fruit looks good enough to eat. Yet, with their gray stone ledges fissured with cracks, the paintings are also haunted by reminders that life, indeed all substance, is fleeting.

The artist began rather awkwardly by copying exotic birds painted by an older Dutch painter, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, who lived in The Hague or Amsterdam. Apparently uninterested in painting birds, Coorte moved on to “vanitas” images, often with a skull to emphasize the fleeting nature of earthly pleasure.

Circling the gallery, Mr. Wheelock grouped three of Coorte’s most luminous, accomplished works together, all from 1700: “Gooseberries and Strawberries,” “Asparagus and Red Currants” and “Peaches and Apricots.” They come from the collection of London’s Pieter C.W.M. Dreesmann, and viewers can see how appropriately they “converse” with one another.

Two still lifes with shells reveal the exotic nature of Middelburg, where Coorte lived. The prosperous city was the capital of Zeeland and a prosperous trading center for companies such as the Dutch East and West India Companies. It was also famous for its fine gardens and unusual markets.

The artist had a thing about asparagus, as the many groups displayed here attest. Their strange perspectives (they seem unsupported) resemble some of Vermeer’s surrealistic compositions in the way they intensify the emotion of a scene. Both artists lit their subjects from the upper left, but while Vermeer used oil pigment exclusively, Coorte sometimes employed oil on paper on panel to achieve an even shinier surface. While Coorte usually painted spare compositions against dead-black backgrounds, his “Still Life with Medlars and Gooseberries” (1686) shows that he could handle intricate compositions as well.

Coorte was largely forgotten until the 1950s, when a scholar became interested in him and researched his art and life. Almost nothing is known about his life, except that he may have been a country gentleman who enjoyed painting on the side. Fifty works by Coorte are now documented, but the only record of him besides his signed and dated paintings was his fine for selling in the Middelburg marketplace without membership in the artists’ guild.

Coorte’s reputation as one of the most forceful Dutch still life painters of the late 17th-century is well-deserved. His spare works are markedly different from flower paintings by contemporaries like Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, who painted exuberant bloomings. (His “Still Life with Flowers” is displayed in an adjacent gallery, as are some of the gallery’s most beloved Vermeers.) Coorte made fruits and vegetables come to life in his “portraits,” much as Vermeer did with his flesh-and-blood images.

WHAT: “Small Wonders: Dutch Still Lifes by Adriaen Coorte”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, 4th St. and Constitution Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. through Sept. 28


PHONE: 202/737-4215

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