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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Anonymous Artist, Willem Kalf/Still Life with Nautilus Cup/1665/1670,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 02, 2024).

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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. Despite the lack of documentary evidence that he operated a workshop with assistants, the existence of multiple replicas by less adroit hands indicates that Kalf did employ assistants during his years in Amsterdam. This Still Life with Nautilus Cup must be one of those workshop replicas. (Kalf’s original is lost.) The lesser quality of the painting is most evident in the lack of definition of the lemon rind and the relatively coarse rendering of the tapestry.

The nautilus cup, a polished turban shell mounted on an elaborately wrought, gilded-silver base in the form of a putto holding a horn of plenty, appears in a number of Kalf’s still lifes of the late 1660s. The turban shell, with its mother-of-pearl luminosity and symbolic association with a cornucopia, made it a particularly appropriate focal point for Kalf’s images of wealth and prosperity. The blue-and-white Wan-Li porcelain bowl with lid is decorated with colored figures representing the eight immortals of Taoist belief.


Kalf’s renown as an artist was such that during his lifetime he was eulogized in verse by Jan Vos and Joost van den Vondel; in the early eighteenth century, Gerard de Lairesse (Dutch, 1641 - 1711) and Arnold Houbraken wrote about him enthusiastically.[1] Although these sources provide some insight into the character of his art, they say nothing about his workshop practice. Likewise, no mention is made of students, although some artists, particularly Jurriaen van Streek (1632–1687), come so close to him in style and composition that it seems improbable that they did not spend some time in his studio.[2] The issue is of some consequence because two or three versions exist of certain of Kalf’s compositions. While later imitations may also have been made, it would have been consistent with seventeenth-century workshop practice for studio assistants, perhaps with the aid of the master, to make replicas of the master’s most successful paintings. Even without documentary evidence to confirm the existence of a Kalf workshop, these replicas suggest that he worked with various assistants, particularly during his Amsterdam years.[3]

Even though Still Life with Nautilus Cup has many qualities of a Kalf composition, it must be one of these replicas.[4] A comparison with the Gallery’s Still Life, in which a number of the same objects appear, reveals the differences in handling between this work and an authentic painting by the master. The most obvious disparity is in the depiction of the lemon rind in each painting ([fig. 1] and [fig. 2]). In Kalf’s own hand the rind has a three-dimensional presence as it twists and turns in space. Its edges are carefully wrought to show both the irregular cut of the knife and the thickness of the skin. Finally, Kalf re-created the rough texture of the skin with sure touches of the brush. The illusionism is so complete that the paint seems to take on the character of the skin itself. The lemon peel in Still Life with Nautilus Cup exhibits none of these characteristics. Form is simplified, edges give no hint of the rind’s thickness, and paint highlights sit on the surface, doing little to create the sense of texture. Comparable differences in technique are evident in the treatment of the Seville orange and the tapestry.[5] Grisebach, who in 1974 was the first to recognize that Still Life with Nautilus Cup was a replica, considered Kalf’s original composition to be a painting formerly on the art market.[6] That painting, however, is also a replica, but by a different hand.[7] As seems to have happened in a number of instances, Kalf’s original is lost.[8]

The compositional elements of the present work indicate that Kalf’s original composition must have been executed in the late 1660s.[9] Although the blue-and-white Wan-Li porcelain bowl, decorated with colored biscuit figures representing the eight immortals of Taoist belief, is already found in Kalf’s paintings from the early 1660s, most prominently in his Still Life with Nautilus Cup of 1662 (Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid),[10] the unusual nautilus cup appears only later in the decade.[11] This cup consists of a polished turban shell mounted on an elaborately wrought, gilded-silver base made in the form of a putto holding a horn of plenty.[12] While the turban shell was especially prized for its mother-of-pearl luminosity, its shape, with the symbolic association with a horn of plenty, made it a particularly appropriate focal point for Kalf’s image of wealth and prosperity.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


probably by another hand, lower left on edge of tabled: W.Kalf



Possibly G.L.M. van Es, Wassenaar.[1] Probably Colonel Towers.[2] (Leonard Koetser, London); sold 1946 to (Edward Speelman, London);[3] sold 1950 or 1958 to (Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam);[4] sold 1958 to Mr. W. Reineke, Amersfoort; re-purchased 1968 by (Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam), with a half-share sold to (Newhouse, London);[5] sold 21 January 1969 by (Newhouse, London) to Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith, Washington, D.C.;[6] gift 1974 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1948 Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Masters, Eugene Slatter Gallery, London, 1948, no. 13.
Zomertentoonstelling 1950, Pieter de Boer Gallery, Amsterdam, 1950, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Kunstbezit rondom Laren, Singer Museum, Laren, The Netherlands, 1958, no. 106, repro.
Nederlandse stillevens uit de zeventiende eeuw, Dordrechts Museum, 1962, no. 65, repro.
Extended loan for use by Secretary Michael Blumenthal, U.S. Department of Treasury, Washington, D.C., 1979-1980.
Extended loan for use by Secretary G. William Miller, U.S. Department of Treasury, Washington, D.C., 1980.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 28.

Technical Summary

The support, a medium-weight, tightly and plain-woven fabric, is composed of irregularly spun threads and was originally stretched off-square. It has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed, although cusping present along all edges suggests that the original dimensions have been retained. The paint was applied over a smooth, thin beige ground in thin, fluid layers, with liquid washes and full-bodied pastes employed to simulate surface texture. Smooth surfaces were rendered with highlights blended wet-into-wet, while a thick paint and a fingerprint were used to texture the orange peel.

Dark passages such as the background are moderately abraded, particularly the darker design elements of the rug and sugar bowl. Minor losses are scattered at random. The signature at the lower left crosses over drying crackle but not the age cracks. It was added after the paint had dried, presumably by another hand. No conservation has been carried out since acquisition.


Eugene Slatter Gallery. Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Masters. Exh. cat. Eugene Slatter Gallery, London, 1948: no. 13.
Pieter de Boer Gallery. Zomertentoonstelling 1950. Exh. cat. Pieter de Boer Gallery, Amsterdam, 1950: unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Boer, Rudolf G. de , D. P. R. A. Bouvy, and P. Eilers. Kunstbezit rondom Laren, 13de-20ste eeuw: schilderijen-beeldhouwwerken. Exh. cat. Singer Museum, Laren, 1958: no. 106, repro.
Bol, Laurens J. Nederlandse Stillevens uit de 17e Eeuw. Exh. cat. Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht, 1962: 29, 71, no. 65, repro.
"Les cours de ventes." Connaissance des Arts 166 (December 1965): 161, no. 12, repro.
Grisebach, Lucius. Willem Kalf, 1619-1693. Berlin, 1974: 278-279, as copy of no. 140.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: Addenda to Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1980: no. 2676, repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 213, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 149-152, color repro. 151.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 35, 66, no. 28.

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