Still-life by Willem Kalf: Feast Your Eyes on This Painting
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Still Life with Drinking Horn (c.1653) by Willem Kalf - National Gallery, London
This still-life painting is a visual extravaganza of contrasting textures and surfaces.
Willem Kalf has painted a luxury dish that hints towards an expensive lifestyle of indulgence; what was referred to as a ‘Pronkstilleven’ (an ‘ostentatious life style’) at the time. All the elements of the composition are either luxury food items (a lobster and a lemon) or rare objects (an oriental rug, glass, and silver)
This type of still-life painting was a very popular genre in 17th century Holland.
Kalf’s expert depiction of light bouncing off the surface of the glass chalices and the smooth polished surface of the drinking horn is astonishing. If you look close enough, you can actually see a painted reflection of a window in the top left rim of the glass to the left. The subtle gradations and highlights of the Turkish carpet’s weave portray Kalf’s masterful ability to capture the fall of light on different textured surfaces. This painting really celebrates Kalf’s impressive versatility as an artist.
Furthermore, the downwards slope of the table’s incline, coupled with the opposing upwards curve of the drinking horn, create a wonderful sense of tension and energy in this painting.
This painting was most likely commissioned by a member, or members, of the Saint Sebastian Archers’ Guild in Amsterdam. This would explain the base of the horn’s silver mount which depicts the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the patron of Amsterdam, who is being shown shot with numerous arrows while tied to a tree, in accordance with the iconographic tradition. Moreover, at the very top of the mount, there is a lion with a shield featuring the arms of the city of Amsterdam. The theme of archery is once again accentuated in the support of the table which has been carved to depict Cupid, the God of Love, who was notorious for his love arrows.