National Gallery of Art opens Elegance and Refinement. The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst

The National Gallery of Art, Washington presents Elegance and Refinement. The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, the first monographic exhibition devoted to Dutch artist on view June 24 through October 14, 2012.

Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst will feature works—including 28 paintings and his only known drawing—remarkable for their fine finish, carefully balanced composition, jewel-toned palette, and elegant subject matter.


Willem van Aelst, (Dutch, 1627 – after 1687), Fruit Still Life with a Mouse, 1674. Oil on canvas. Private Collection, Boston.

Drawn from all stages of Van Aelst’s career, the exhibition is organized chronologically and thematically in the West Building’s Dutch Cabinet Galleries.

The artist gained an international reputation in part because of the unusual trajectory of his career. He joined the artists’ guild in his native Delft in 1643 at age 16 and quickly demonstrated an ability to render delicate fruit in modestly scaled tabletop still lifes, such as Peaches, Grapes, and a Plum on a Ledge (1646).

Van Aelst soon left for Paris, where he became part of a small community of northern artists. During his five to six years in France the artist further refined his manner of rendering still-life objects to appeal to the sophisticated Parisian market. He also expanded the scale and complexity of his paintings and began making large, sumptuous still lifes, notable for their ostentatious display of luxury objects, seen in Pronk Still Life with Armor (c. 1651).

In the early 1650s Van Aelst moved to Florence, where he became a favorite at the Medici court. In Florence he painted 14 lavish still lifes for the Cardinals Giovan Carlo and Leopoldo de’ Medici that reflect their interest in hunting, gardening, and the collecting of beautiful decorative objects. Among these works are pendant paintings of fruit and flowers that demonstrate Van Aelst’s exceptional sensitivity to color and compositional design: Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Ledge (1652) and Still Life with Melon (1652).

Van Aelst painted game pieces for the Medici that feature dead animals hanging from ropes, an illusionistic device that he used in Still Life with Game (1652) and continued to develop throughout his career. Nearly one-third of Van Aelst’s known paintings depict dead game and elements of the hunt, a sport restricted mostly to the nobility and landed gentry.

In 1656 Van Aelst returned to the Netherlands, having spent more than 10 years abroad in direct contact with wealthy and powerful patrons. In Amsterdam he quickly became known as the still-life artist for the growing upper class. He began this stage of his career by painting works similar to those that had met with such success at the Medici court in Florence: elegant flower pieces and depictions of the spoils of the hunt, such as Dead Game with Implements of Sport (1657) and Still Life with Fruits and a Wineglass (1659). He emphasized his Italian pedigree by signing his name as “Guillelmo” rather than “Willem.”

His remarkable ability to render materials as varied as glass, marble, metal, and cloth is beautifully demonstrated in the rock crystal pocket watches, velvet game bags, and silver vases that fill his works. While in Amsterdam, Van Aelst developed a more fluid and rhythmic style to compete favorably in this dynamic new marketplace. Late paintings, such as Still Life with Game (1661) and Flower Still Life with a Watch (1663), are animated by lifelike details such as insects sitting on leaves and blossoms. Moved by the artist’s virtuoso technique, poets described how Van Aelst could convey the inner spirit of the objects he so carefully depicted, whether fruit and flowers, dead game, fabrics, or even elegant gilded vessels.

The exhibition was curated by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque paintings, the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it was on view from March 11 through May 28, and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation.

It is made possible by The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

For information call (202) 737-4215 or the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) at (202) 842-6176, or visit the Gallery’s Web site at www.nga.gov

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