Though modest in size and compass, Jacob van Walscapelle’s Still Life with Fruit has a remarkable sensuality and monumentality of presence. The artist’s touch is fresh, his brushstrokes fluid, and his color sense unerring, making the image both inviting and accessible. Bathed in soft light, every figural element quietly asserts its essential properties. The elegant eight-sided façon de Venice glass filled with white wine sparkles against the dark background, as light accents its complex, delicate form. One can almost taste the ripe pomegranate bursting with red seeds, the hazelnuts, and the purple grapes that seemingly spill over the edge of the stone table into the viewer’s space.
Van Walscapelle clearly took great care in the creation of this arrangement, for iconographic as well as compositional reasons. All of the pictorial elements have associations with Christian ideas of death and resurrection. Grapes and wine are infused with the symbolism of the Eucharist. The symbolism of the partially opened pomegranate is more complex but no less profound. The red arils represent Christ’s suffering, but when planted they grow, and hence they also have associations with the Resurrection. The many arils contained within an outer skin also represent the unity of the Christian church. By carefully wrapping the stem of the grape vine around the pomegranate, Van Walscapelle suggested the overarching theme of death and resurrection as conveyed by these various compositional elements. The filberts (hazelnuts) at the lower left edge of the stone table—one within its husk, one partially within its husk, and one with its husk removed—carry other important associations. As Sam Segal has noted, medieval exegetes gave the three components of this nut—its husk, its shell or pod, and its edible inner core—symbolic significance. The husk was compared to Christ’s suffering on the cross, the shell to the strength of his all-embracing divinity, and the sweet kernel to the eternal truths of his teachings. Van Walscapelle’s painting thus would have encouraged the viewer not only to contemplate Christ’s sacrifice and eventual rebirth but also to ponder the essence of the Christian message.
Little is known about the trajectory of Van Walscapelle’s artistic career, but he seems to have been influenced by the paintings of Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606 - 1684), even though the latter painted in Utrecht whereas Van Walscapelle worked in Amsterdam. Whether or not the two artists had direct contact, their works are similar in the choice of objects depicted and the religious symbolism that infuses them (see De Heem's Vase of Flowers). Van Walscapelle also shared De Heem’s ability to harmonize his tabletop compositions through light and color while simultaneously suggesting the varied textures of his pictorial elements; here, for example, Van Walscapelle painted both the smooth, translucent skin of lush grapes and the wrinkly, blemished surface of those past their prime. Still Life with Fruit nevertheless differs from De Heem’s mature paintings in its elegant and restrained simplicity.
Many of the objects in this painting, including the wineglass, pomegranate, and grapes, are found in other of Van Walscapelle’s works, although generally in the midst of a more complex arrangement. The artist may have made studies of these objects that he reused in different combinations, and he almost certainly purchased the glass as a prop, since it appears in another of his paintings. The delicate and refined wineglass was probably manufactured in Amsterdam in emulation of the famed Venetian glassware. In 1664 Filips von Zesen wrote in his Beschreibung der Stadt Amsterdam that a manufacturer on the Rozengracht had succeeded in making glass “quite as beautiful as the glasses made in Venice.”
A fascinating element of this painting is the bubbly appearance of the white wine. Whether or not this quality was Van Walscapelle’s original intent, however, is difficult to determine. Many of the apparent “bubbles” are created by small pits in the paint, possibly caused by lead soap aggregation, a condition that may have developed years after Van Walscapelle painted this work.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014