- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Succulent lemon rinds curl over dining tables; tasty hazelnuts scatter across tablecloths; elegant wines gleam in silver and glass cups: These are just a few of the mouthwatering delectables portrayed in the National Gallery of Art’s “Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life,” a landmark exhibit (organized with the Franz Hals Museum, Haarlem and the Kunsthaus, Zurich) devoted to the artist widely regarded as the finest Dutch still-life painter of his time.

Rarely has there been such a breathtakingly beautiful show. How could it be otherwise? Everyone — now, as then — likes to eat and drink, and wealthy 17th-century Dutch burghers raised these pleasures to a fine art.

Claesz (who was born either in 1596 or 1597 and died in 1660) pulls you in with half-eaten repasts — of fruits, plates of oysters and breads that teeter on table edges. He revolutionized the still-life genre with dynamic compositions, intense colors and translucent light. Before him, as in the Floris van Dijck still life mounted nearby, compositions were stiffer and less humanized.

Though Claesz was highly prolific — some 250 paintings remain, from which the exhibit curators have selected 26 — little is known about his training and life. Probably trained in Antwerp, he moved in 1621 to Haarlem, where he found rich patrons and successful artists such as Frans Hals.

Claesz’s major works explored tensions between the sensuousness of wealth and the restraint of the era’s dominant Calvinist ethos, and it is those tensions that light up the show.

His style evolved from the simpler, modestly sized “breakfast pieces” of the 1620s, which feature sensuous foods, wines, pipes and knives together with intimidating skulls characteristic of Calvinist “vanitas” works. Claesz went on to pioneer the more realistic “monochrome tabletop still lifes” that became a popular genre in the 1630s. His sumptuous paintings of the 1640s, reflecting Dutch taste of that decade, overflow with masses of flowers, fruits, fishes, gilded covered cups and silver “tazzas” (wine goblets).

Sadly, Haarlem’s prosperity declined, as did the artist’s sales and reputation. While Claesz enjoyed a successful and profitable life almost until the end, he died so poor in 1660 that his young twin daughters were placed in an orphanage.

Paintings such as “Breakfast Piece With Herring, Shrimps, Roll, Saltcellar, Claret Glass, and Halved Orange” (circa 1623) and “Tabletop Still Life With Mince Pie and Basket of Grapes” (1625) in the exhibit’s first gallery explode with the tension between baroque excess and Christian austerity. The artist uses fishes, symbolic of Christ, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist, to evoke Christian beliefs. Yet with the expensive pie and bursting grapes, Claesz reminds his compatriots of their worldly comforts.

More subtle are the geometric diagonal grids that ground the works. The round shrimp and herring plates of his 1623 “Breakfast Piece” march diagonally from front to back. There’s another receding diagonal with the plates holding the orange and herring. A Vermeer-like light softly illuminates the edibles while turning the saltcellar into a classically designed metal sculpture. The tilted tabletop brings objects closer.

The exhibit’s centerpiece, “Still Life With Roemer, Tazza and Watch” (1636), in the second gallery, shows Claesz at his best. He captures light and texture in picking out details of the gleaming “tazza” — a shallow, saucerlike ornamental welcoming bowl — and the white wine in the standing glass “roemer.” As an extra touch, the museum helpfully displays actual roemers and tazzas as well as other objects such as shells and gilded covered cups that relate to the paintings.

This Dutch master’s talent for contrasting sensual objects and Calvinist symbols makes the exhibit special. Though the abundance and excess depicted in Claesz’s later paintings assault your senses, it’s the earlier, subtler ones that ultimately stick in your mind.

WHAT: “Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB: www.nga.gov

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