Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst

Where: National Gallery of Art, Main Building

When: through October 14, 2012

This is a lovely small show on the main floor, the first one to focus on Van Aelst's work.  He was one of the foremost painters of still lifes in the 17th century, and enjoyed a great deal of success, as he was able to tailor his paintings to suit wealthy buyers.  His paintings of fruit, flowers and game are sumptuous; the fruit especially is so lifelike, you want to reach into the painting and take a piece.

Originally from the Netherlands, Van Aelst gained an international reputation, as he was able to paint so well the luxury objects that were of interest to buyers.   In his "Pronk Still Life with Armor," the metallic fringe on the fabric is so realistic - it practically shimmers.  You may be asking yourself, "What on earth is a pronk still life?"  I had never of heard of such a thing until I went to this exhibit (I learn something at every show I attend).  It means an elaborate display of luxury goods made of precious metals.  These paintings showcase Van Aelst's ability to paint not only natural objects (fruit, flowers, etc.) but also man-made objects, such as armor, goblets, watches, etc.

In one painting, "Still Life with Fruits and a Wineglass," the glass reflects a cityscape - proof that he had abilities even beyond the still life genre.  I noticed that he put a snail into many of his paintings, as well as butterflies and other small creatures.  Once I realized this, I started looking for the snail in every painting - a great way to pay closer attention to the works. Van Aelst's depictions of birds put me in mind of the "Colorful Realm" exhibit - the attention to detail, I suppose, as the paintings are nothing alike.

An interesting note: many of the fabrics depicted in these paintings appear blue, but when they were painted, they were green.  Van Aelst used a yellow and blue dye combination to achieve the green color, but the yellow pigment was unstable and faded over time, leaving only the blue.

Verdict:  This is a fine show, worth a trip all on its own, but easily combined with something else on view at the gallery.

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