Published: May 18, 2004
One of the most important early Seventeenth Century Dutch still lifes in New England was acquired by the Currier Museum of Art in March. Balthasar van der Ast, an early great Dutch still life painter, created his first major masterwork in “Still Life of Fruit on a Kraak Porcelain Dish,” dated 1617. It is regarded by scholars as a landmark in the history and development of Dutch still life painting.
“The Currier’s acquisition of Balthasar van der Ast’s almost miraculously well-preserved still life brings new strength to the museum’s holdings. It is a stellar example of Seventeenth Century Dutch painters’ devotion to the visible and pictorial genius,” said Seymour Slive, a former director of the Harvard University Art Museums and author of several books on the genre, including Dutch Painting, 1600-1800, published by Yale University Press.
Van der Ast was born in Middelburg about 1593 as the son of a wealthy merchant. Upon the death of his father in 1609, Van der Ast went to live with his sister, Maria, who was also a painter and who had married Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, one of the founders of the Dutch still life genre.
Bosschaert was known for his striking depictions of flowers, but Van der Ast, who was Bosschaert’s pupil until he was 21, departed from his teacher’s influence in his early twenties, when he painted “Still Life of Fruit on a Kraak Porcelain Dish.” It was among the very first still lifes to depict fruit, and certainly the most accomplished of any departure from traditional floral still lifes. Because of its large scale, exquisite attention to light and shadow and sophisticated composition, many speculate that this painting served as Van der Ast’s “masterpiece submission” in 1619 to the guild, or union, to which fine arts painters belonged.
The painting, which measures nearly two by three feet, features a large porcelain dish heaped with apples, apricots, plums and grapes. The almost life-sized dish rests on a stone tabletop, beside two carnations, a spray of apricots, two shells, a tiny snail and a quince. The wilting leaves, feasting flies and chipped edge of the tabletop refer to the fleeting nature of life and beauty, injecting a moralizing theme into the product of a Protestant society. The porcelain dish and the exotic shells reflect the collecting tastes of Seventeenth Century Holland’s upwardly mobile middle class. The growing wealth of the middle class, as well as these fragile, exotic objects, derived from Holland’s expansive trade routes to Asia and the West Indies. This new prosperity, coupled with a hunger for paintings, helped support the Dutch Golden Age of art.
“The Currier’s new painting is one of the most important Dutch still lifes in any New England museum, and one of the most historically important in America,” said Susan Strickler, Currier director. She added, “With funds from the bequest of our longtime trustee Henry Melville Fuller, we are able to renew our commitment to buying landmark works of art.”
The Currier Museum of Art is at 201 Myrtle Way. For information, 603-669-6144, ext 108, or www.currier.org.
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