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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Willem van Aelst/Still Life with Dead Game/1661,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 17, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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Still lifes with hunting motifs became popular in Dutch art in the latter part of the seventeenth century, at a time when Dutch society grew wealthier and more refined. Willem van Aelst, who worked in Paris and Florence before settling in Amsterdam, was one of the first still-life painters to depict hunting trophies. Many such paintings create a heightened sense of reality by featuring full-scale representations of the objects they portray, as in the life-sized animals here. This kill includes a white rooster, a wild hare, a partridge, and several songbirds. Another large bird, possibly a black rooster, is partially hidden and cannot be identified because the canvas has been cropped, which has eliminated its head. Two red velvet hoods used in falconry dangle from a cord. The fly, attracted to the blood on the rooster's comb, may be the only sign of life, but it is also a harbinger of the decay that follows death. Van Aelst’s superb skill in rendering the illusion of fur, feathers, and flesh set a major precedent for later French, British, and American painters of sporting scenes.

The relief depicting the story of Diana and Actaeon, carved on the stone ledge, is evidence that Van Aelst's painting was intended to represent the general theme of the hunt rather than the spoils of a specific outing. Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, splashes water on Actaeon, a mortal huntsman who surprised her at her bath. In punishment for having embarrassed Diana, Actaeon sprouts the antlers of a stag and will be killed by his own hounds.


Van Aelst depicts a number of dead animals hanging above, and resting upon, a blue, gold-trimmed hunter’s game pouch that lies on a stone ledge. He painted the animals so precisely that most of them can be identified. The scene is dominated by a European hare (Lepus europaeus) and a large white rooster. A European partridge (Perdix perdix) hangs before the legs of the hare, while in the upper left an adult kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) and a common wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) are suspended from the same string as two falconer’s hoods. Another large bird, possibly a black rooster, is partially hidden and cannot be identified. The animals must have been killed by a falcon, as no bullet wounds are visible.[1]

The tightly cropped and carefully orchestrated composition is characteristic of Van Aelst’s paintings from the 1650s and 1660s. Through his use of light, color, and texture, Van Aelst focuses our attention on the animals and the game pouch. He carefully records the various textures of the fur, feathers, stone, and satin, and even includes a fly on the rooster’s comb. The dark background gives the scene a somber, almost brooding quality. The impact of the painting, however, comes from its extraordinary illusionism, and one wonders whether it was installed in such a way that its trompe l’oeil qualities were enhanced. The trompe l’oeil illusionism of the design is compromised by the way the strap of the game pouch is cut by the lower edge of the painting. Hence, one wonders whether the design was originally intended to be onto its frame or onto the wall itself. One could also imagine that illusionistic nails could have been painted above the composition from which the dead game would have appeared to hang. Despite its exceptional state of preservation, the painting no longer looks today as it did when Van Aelst executed it. Technical examinations have revealed that the brilliant blue game bag was initially green in color. Van Aelst painted the bag with a mixture of natural ultramarine and a yellow lake, which proved to be fugitive.

Such paintings may have been collected by rich burghers who owned game parks and hunting lodges. Scott Sullivan has argued that these paintings appealed to the aristocratic aspirations of the Dutch burgher because hunting and falconry traditionally had been pastimes of the Dutch nobility.[2] The diversity of animals indicates that Van Aelst composed the scene from a repertoire of studies that he had made after specific models. Virtually the same kingfisher, hanging in a similar position, occurs in a signed and dated 1664 painting (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).[3] The game pouch is also found in other Van Aelst paintings, such as Still Life with Game and Hunting Gear (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).[4]

That Van Aelst’s painting was intended to represent the general theme of the hunt rather than the spoils of a specific outing is evident from the relief on the front of the stone ledge depicting Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a mortal huntsman who surprised her at her bath. Diana, visible between the shoulder straps of the game pouch, leans over to splash water on Actaeon. He recoils, but stag horns are already sprouting from his head as punishment for his intrusion. Van Aelst’s relief is based on one of the most famous mannerist compositions, Paulus van Vianen’s gilded silver plaquette of 1612 [fig. 1].[5] The exquisite works of both Paulus and his older brother Adam elicited great admiration in the seventeenth century, and their silver basins and ewers appear frequently in paintings by Dutch artists. Intricate silver vessels, similar to those created by the Van Vianens, occur in a number of Van Aelst’s flower still lifes. As Rudiger Klessmann has pointed out, artists included these finely wrought objects in their biblical and mythological paintings as symbols of worldly treasures that should be forsaken for more lasting values.[6] In this instance, because Van Aelst has depicted a stone relief rather than the gilded silver plaquette, he emphasizes instead the thematic relationship of the story of Diana and Actaeon to the hunt.[7]

The juxtaposition of the relief with the dead game may also have been chosen for moralizing reasons.[8] The story of Diana and Actaeon frequently was interpreted in Dutch seventeenth-century literature as a warning against succumbing to sensual pleasure. Actaeon’s downfall resulted from his unregulated desires, which led him to overstep the bounds of chastity by peering at Diana.[9] The partridge, hare, and rooster hanging above the relief are all animals that, like Actaeon, are associated with unbridled lust.[10] Thus, the unusual array of animals in this trophy painting may have less to do with the specifics of a hunt than with the underlying iconographic content of the painting. The entire scene, painted with such trompe l’oeil illusionism, probably also alluded to the transience of sensual pleasure.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower right below table top: van. Aelst. 1661.



Probably (sale, Amsterdam, 14 October 1749, no. 16).[1] Dr. C.J.K. van Aalst, Huis-te-Hoevelaken, by 1939;[2] (sale, Sotheby Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, 18 May 1981, no. 1); (Richard Green, London); sold 8 June 1982 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Dutch Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, 1997, unnumbered brochure.
Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe L'Oeil Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002-2003, not in catalogue.
Elegance and Refinement: The Still Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Ntaional Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2012, no. 15, repro.

Technical Summary

The support is a fine-weight, plain-weave fabric that has been lined and the tacking margins have been trimmed. Like many of Van Aelst’s works of the 1650’s and 1660’s was prepared with a double ground: a lower layer of chalk toned with earth and a gray-brown upper ground.[1] The precision of the forms suggests that Van Aelst used some form of preliminary design. There is evidence that most of the composition was underpainted in tones of brown and gray. The handling of the final paint is extremely disciplined, with minute wet-into-wet strokes defining individual fibers in the feathers and building finely textured passages such as the rooster’s wattles.

Technical analysis revealed a significant, unintended alteration in the painting. In this work, as in most of Van Aelst’s hunt compositions, the game bag originally was not blue but green. The green bag was painted with a pigment mixture composed of ultramarine blue and a yellow lake based on a fugitive dyestuff such as weld. The yellow dyestuff has faded leaving only the blue pigment visible.[2]

The overall condition of the painting is excellent, with losses confined to the edges and the hare’s muzzle. Thin upper layers and glazes are moderately abraded, particularly in the rooster and partridge feathers, the pouch and strap, bas-relief shadows, and background. The painting was treated in 2010 to remove a discolored varnish and to inpaint the losses and abrasion.


[1] For an overview of Van Aelst’s materials and painting practices see E. Melanie Gifford, Anikó Bezur, Andrea Guidi di Bagno, and Lisha Deming Glinsman, "The making of a luxury image: van Aelst’s painting materials and artistic techniques," Elegance and Refinement: The Still-life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, Houston and Washington, 2012, 66-89.

[2] Analysis of paint cross-sections by light microscopy, SEM-EDX and microspectrofluorimetry was carried out by the NGA Scientific Research department. See Gifford et al. 78-80.


Moltke, Joachim Wolfgang, ed. Dutch and Flemish old masters in the collection of Dr. C.J.K. van Aalst, Huis-te-Hoevelaken, Holland. Foreword by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Translated. Verona, 1939: 50, pl. 11.
Sullivan, Scott A. The Dutch Gamepiece. Montclair, New Jersey, 1984: 91 n. 32.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 306, no. 405, color repro.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 17, repro.
Grimm, Claus. Stilleben: die niederländischen und deutschen Meister. Stuttgart, 1988: 172, repros. 115-117.
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 134, repro.
Barolsky, Paul. "Still Life and Metamorphosis." Source: Notes in the History of Art 14, no. 2 (1995): 36, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 3-4, color repro. 2.
Chong, Alan, and Wouter Th. Kloek. Still-life Paintings from the Netherlands, 1550-1720. Exh. cat. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Cleveland Museum of Art. Zwolle, 1999: 244, fig. 61a.
Paul, Tanya. "'Beschildert met een Glans': Willem van Aelst and artistic self-consciousness in seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2008: x, 130, 245, 282, 379, fig. 50.
Paul, Tanya, et al. Elegance and Refinement: The still-life paintings of Willem van Aelst. Exh. cat. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 2012: 130-133, no. 15, repro.

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used symbolically
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