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. 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. 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.
Even though Still Life with Nautilus Cup has many qualities of a Kalf composition, it must be one of these replicas. 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. 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. That painting, however, is also a replica, but by a different hand. As seems to have happened in a number of instances, Kalf’s original is lost.
The compositional elements of the present work indicate that Kalf’s original composition must have been executed in the late 1660s. 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), the unusual nautilus cup appears only later in the decade. 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. 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