Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer and a Porcelain Bowl, 1655–60, oil on canvas, 73.8 x 65.2 cm (Rijksmuseum)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and we’re looking at a still life by one of the 17th century’s best-known still life painters, a man whose name is Willem Kalf.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] This painting is called “Still Life with Silver Ewer.” The silver ewer is pretty fabulous and ostentatious and luxurious. Then there’s that gold goblet stand behind it, and that glass goblet with a fabulously complicated stem. Then, of course, that Chinese-style porcelain bowl, maybe from China, next to that.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] Kalf is known for including Chinese ceramics in his still lifes. These were fabulously precious objects. It’s an important reminder when looking at still lifes that what we’re looking at are real treasures. These are things that speak to the wealth and prosperity of Holland in the 17th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] Still life is an old subject matter in art history, but comes into its own in the 17th century. If we go back a little bit, in the 15th century, we notice in paintings, for example by Robert Campin, beautiful still life objects included in paintings, but there, always within a religious context, often with symbolic religious meaning. But here, not within that explicitly religious context.

Dr. Zucker: [1:18] It’s subtler, but there is still very much a moral message. If you look at the lower right corner, you can see that there is the watch. You can see its glass case has been opened. You can just make out the hands of that ornate gold clock.

[1:31] That is a reminder of time, which in turn is a reminder of our mortality, our eventual death. Even though we might be enjoying, literally, the fruits of life, all of this will come to an end.

Dr. Harris: [1:42] We’re also reminded about the passage of time in that lemon that’s been peeled, which we see so often in Dutch still life painting. Fruit that’s been peeled begins to rot, so again that sense of the passage of time and the inevitability of death.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Look at the surface of that lemon. Look at the way that the artist is in love with being able to use his extraordinary technique to define every bump of the surface of the rind, the cooler, almost spongy texture of the white just below the rind, and then the surface of the fruit itself, all of which is just spectacular.

[2:15] This is a lemon, but it’s almost as if it was a gem. That attention to surface, that attention to the sparkling detail, can be seen in the glass, and the silver, and of course the cooled quality of the surface of the porcelain.

Dr. Harris: [2:28] I love the bulges on the lemon that sits on the table, but also a little bit off the table and in our space. It’s all so close. We could reach out and touch it and enjoy it ourselves. In that way, it reminds us about the pleasures of life, very palpably.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] There’s also something inherently quiet and almost spiritual about the way that light is handled in this painting. You have light coming from the upper left behind us slightly. It’s entering into this architectural niche, which is very dark, and allows for this beautiful highlighting, almost this stage for these objects.

[3:03] You have the reflectivity, but then you also have places where one object reflects another object. For instance, the lower right of the silver vase is reflecting the yellow of the lemon. Then look at the way that light reflects off of and also passes through the glass at the center top, creating both shadow and illuminated shadow at the same time.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] It looks like on the bottom foot of that silver pitcher we can see the reflection of a window. In this description of texture, in the reflectivity, we see a continuous tradition going back to artists like Campin and Van Eyck, a very specifically northern tradition that here we see several hundred years later in this beautiful still life painting by Willem Kalf.

[3:51] [music]

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Cite this page as: Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, "Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer," in Smarthistory, March 14, 2016, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/kalf-ewer/.