KALF, Willem
(b. 1619, Rotterdam, d. 1693, Amsterdam)

Still-Life with a Nautilus Cup (detail)

Oil on canvas
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Kalf depicted decorative objects - such as Chinese porcelain soup tureens, preciously decorated nautilus goblets and costly carpets - his paintings seem to have been dominated not so much by wealth and prosperity as by the aesthetic values and optical qualities of perception that emanated from these objects. Thus, the refraction of the light on the objects and the modification of the colours as mirrored by each of the other objects become the real subject of his art. Kalf achieved his effects by giving objects a bright luminescence, further emphasized by a dark background a method which made him a remote kinsman of the Caravaggists. His objects only exist to the extent that they can be perceived, but in order to be perceived they need light to dispel that darkness which is the original state of the world.

However, unlike Caravaggio and his successors, Kalf avoided beaming any harsh shafts of light onto an object. Instead, his light is more subdued and diffuse, with a source that cannot be exactly identified (though it usually comes from above). It gives each object a minimum of brightness so that it shines faintly and transparently from within here and there, for example on the edge of a silver bowl, although there are also brightly shining spots in some places. The light dissolves, as it were, the material properties of the objects: delicately thin Chinese porcelain is perceived as fragile, brittle and transparent, penetrated softly by the light. Half-peeled oranges and lemons, with their skins spiralling down artistically, have their fruity flesh displayed in such a way that their drop-like fibres flicker golden in the light.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.