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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Willem Kalf/Still Life/c. 1660,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed December 08, 2021).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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Willem Kalf was one of the most celebrated, sought after, and successful still-life painters of the seventeenth century. With its off-center pyramidal composition, this Still Life is a quintessential example of a compositional format that Kalf used in the late 1650s and early 1660s. The artist’s favorite Chinese porcelain fruit bowl, dating from the Wan-Li dynasty, is tipped at an angle to reveal the blue-on-white decorations that play off so well against the oranges, yellows, and reds of the fruit. A craze for Chinese porcelain had developed in the Netherlands after the capture of Portuguese ships carrying a large cargo of Wan-Li porcelain in March 1603 and continued throughout the century.

With their depiction of Oriental carpets, Venetian glass, Seville oranges, agate-handled knives, and above all Chinese porcelain, Kalf’s paintings evoke the far corners of the world. Placing these exotic objects against dark, contrasting backgrounds allowed Kalf to illuminate their forms with accents of light.


A restrained arrangement of sumptuous objects nestled in a luxurious and exotic Oriental carpet is brought to life by the delicate play of light across their surfaces.[1] With deft touches of his paintbrush Kalf invokes the soft texture of wool, the vitreous gleam of Chinese porcelain, the dense rind of lemon, and the transparent sheen of an elegantly wrought Venetian-style goblet. Viewed individually the objects have no logical relationship to one another, yet orchestrated as they are through Kalf’s unerring sense of composition, these and the other items he has depicted come together as a harmonious whole.

As is evident from examining the full extent of his oeuvre, Kalf’s style developed in quite distinct phases that parallel, to a certain extent, his periods of residence in Rotterdam, Paris, and Amsterdam. Within each phase a precise chronology is difficult to determine as he dated only a few of his paintings. Because Kalf favored a few compositional types and tended to use many of the same objects in various combinations, however, one can often arrive at an approximate chronology.

This painting, with its pyramidal composition set off-center, is one of the purest examples of a compositional format used by Kalf in Amsterdam in the late 1650s and early 1660s.[2] The presence of the Chinese porcelain fruit bowl, tipped at an angle to reveal its decorated interior, is also characteristic of his Amsterdam period. This Wan-Li bowl was a favorite of Kalf’s, possibly because the blues and creamy whites of the interior played off so well against the oranges, yellows, and reds of the fruit.[3] Conservation of the painting in 2010 revealed that a glass bird with spread wings surmounting the tall flute and extensive scalloping on the glass cup on the right, which were previously visible in the painting, were fanciful additions by an earlier restorer [fig. 1].[4]

Kalf’s paintings were destined for an elite audience, one that not only took pride in the mercantile prosperity of the Dutch Republic but also had been instrumental in creating that wealth. His still lifes from the Amsterdam period do not contain Dutch cheeses, breads, hams, and pies but rather depict items that had been imported from the far reaches of the world—Venetian glass, Oriental carpets, agate-handled knives, Seville oranges, and, above all, Chinese porcelain.[5] He then placed these exotic objects against a dark, contrasting background that allowed him to illuminate their forms with accents of light.

To judge from paintings such as this, Kalf’s primary intent must have been to create an arrangement of elegant and luxurious objects that could be enjoyed for their aesthetic appeal. As opposed to earlier Haarlem still-life painters, he seems to have had little interest in instilling moralizing messages into his works. Confirmation of his attitude can be gained from the writings of Gerard de Lairesse (Dutch, 1641 - 1711), an important Amsterdam painter and theorist who knew Kalf personally and admired his work.[6] De Lairesse writes that paintings of the type that Kalf executed, which include “expensive items, such as gold, silver, crystal and other glasses, pearls, rare stones, and pearl necklaces,” are commonly called Vanitassen, or vanitas paintings.[7] Nevertheless, according to De Lairesse, Kalf did not include objects in his paintings to convey a specific meaning or moral. Indeed, he decided which objects to paint somewhat according to whim and without any preconceived program.[8]Although the rarity and fragility of the objects might call to mind questions of transience associated with vanitas painting, these were merely by-products of Kalf’s work, not the driving force behind it.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


Possibly Joseph Daniel Böhm [1794-1865], Vienna; possibly (his sale, Alexander Posonyi, Vienna, 4 December 1865, no. 1682).[1] (Cottier & Co., New York); sold 1889 to Mrs. Henry Osborne Havemeyer [née Louisine Waldron Elder, 1855-1929], New York; (sale, American Art Association, Anderson Galleries, New York, 10 April 1930, no. 46); Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; gift 1943 to NGA.

Exhibition History
The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 27.
Technical Summary

The support, a fine-weight, plain-weave fabric, has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. The X-radiographs show broad cusping along the top edge. The double ground consists of a red lower layer and an opaque beige upper layer.[1] Both thin layers are brush applied and leave the weave pattern prominent.

Paint handling varies according to the surface texture being rendered, from thin opaque layers to richly textured pastes, with glazes confined to carpet details and the dark background. Infrared reflectography at 1.1 to 2.5 microns[2] reveals evidence of a fourth glass. Remnants of this glass became visible when overpaint was removed during a conservation treatment in 2010. It is unclear if Kalf intended for this glass to be seen or if he had painted it out and it was subsequently uncovered by a particularly aggressive restoration at some point in the painting’s history.

A large complex tear is present in the upper right quadrant and the background is heavily abraded in this area. Scattered small losses are found overall, with a larger loss in the center of the Seville orange. There is also evidence of damage to some of the glassware, namely the center glass, and the glass on the proper left side. During an earlier restoration, the white highlights in these objects were reinforced, and in some cases, such as the winged bird on top of the center glass, completely invented. The X-radiographs reveal that some of the original lead-white highlights were still present beneath these additions.[3] In 2010, the painting was treated to remove discolored varnish, inpaint, and overpaint and to bring the tear back into plane. During that treatment the restoration highlights in the glassware were painted out and the original highlights were reconstructed using the X-radiographs as a guide.


[1] The painting conservation department used cross-sections to analyze the ground when the painting was treated in 2010 (see report dated July 2010 in NGA Conservation department files).

[2] Infrared reflectography was performed using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with H, J, and K filters.

[3] The additions were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using air-path X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and confirmed to be of a later date. Some of the other pigments in the painting were also analyzed at this time (see report, dated October 19, 2010, in NGA Conservation department files). The yellow pigment in the lemon had been analyzed previously by the NGA Scientific Research department using air-path X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and found to be lead-tin yellow (see reports dated October 12, 1983, and October 19, 2010, in NGA Conservation department files).


"Rush at Auction of Havemeyer Art." New York Times (11 April 1930): 23.
Poe, Elisabeth E. "The Gift of 11 Paintings to the National Gallery of Art by Chester Dale." Washington Times-Herald, (18 July 1943): C-10.
Washington Times-Herald (18 July 1943): C-10.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 124.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings Other Than French in the Chester Dale Collection. Washington, 1959 (reprinted 1965): 15, repro.
Baird, Thomas P. Dutch Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art 7. Washington, 1960: 40, color repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963: 315, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings Other than French in the Chester Dale Collection. Washington, 1965: 15, repro.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 71.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 63, repro.
Grisebach, Lucius. Willem Kalf, 1619-1693. Berlin, 1974: 114-115, 122, 130, 258-259, no. 102, repro. 116.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 184-185, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 306, no. 404, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 213, repro.
Pelfrey, Robert H., and Mary Hall-Pelfrey. Art and Mass Media. New York, 1985: 99, no. 4.18, repro.
Sutton, Peter C. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Washington and Grand Rapids, 1986: 309.
Grimm, Claus. Stilleben: die niederländischen und deutschen Meister. Stuttgart, 1988: 223, repro.
Ydema, Onno. Carpets and Their Datings in Netherlandish Paintings, 1540-1700. Zutphen, 1991: 161, no. 455.
Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney, et al. Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993: 351, no. 336, repro. [not in the exhibition].
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 146-149, color repro. 147.
Pelfrey, Robert H. Art and mass media. New York, 1985. Reprint, Dubuque, Iowa, 1996: 96-97, fig. 4.16.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 35, 66, no. 27.
Brunnenkant, Katja. "Falscher Glanz? Technologische Untersuchung des ‘W. Kalf. 1643’ signierten Prunkstillebens im Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Köln und Vergleich mit Werken aus der Pariser Periode Willem Kalfs (ca. 1619-1693)." Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung 13, no. 2 (1999): 264-273, fig. 40, 266, repro. of X-radiography.
Schmied, Wieland. Harenberg-Museum der Malerei: 525 Meisterwerke aus sieben Jahrhunderten. Dortmund, 1999: 362-363, repro.
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vanitas still life
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