Westermann argues that the origin of the objects, along with the wealth they represent, are what craft the message of Willem Kalf’s Still Life with a Late Ming Ginger Jar (pictured on p. 117 of A Worldly Art). She writes that by using objects from the furthest corners of 17th-century Dutch influence and trade in this painting, Kalf chucks the identities these objects had in their original homes out the window and reassigns them ones as Dutch property and as symbols of Dutch prosperity. Further, she highlights the elegance of a watch visible in the painting over its purpose as a symbol of transience.
European colonial powers were of course masters of coldly reducing artifacts from other cultures to status symbols for their mantelpieces, and wealthy people then were as obsessed as they are now with owning and displaying expensive-looking objects, but whether or not these things matter in the historical and genre-specific context of this painting is what is contestable about the claim here. When looking at 17th-century Dutch still life paintings, one usually looks for what Westermann refers to as the “vanitas reference”—which object or symbol in this painting is going to remind us of the impermanent nature of almost everything in life and the inevitability of death? Often, these symbols were not so subtle, and reminders of death came simply in the form of skulls, as we see in paintings like Vanitas Still Life by B. Schaak from the Rijksmuseum website. In Kalf’s painting, the relevant symbol is the watch on the table, and the context of this painting means that the watch as a symbol of transience is more important than the watch as a symbol of wealth, or the origin of the other objects on the table.
Thinking about this post definitely got me pretty excited about still-life paintings, so I’m working on a tag in my Rijksstudio about those (which I may end up splitting into a few). Browsing through what they have, I’m also highlighting works with animals, landscapes with windmills, and ships at sea (specifically shipwrecks or storms).
Interesting Painting #1: Melchior d’Hondecoeter, Ducks, c. 1675 – c. 1680, oil on canvas, h 93 cm × w 116 cm
Ducks are my absolute favorite animals, so they were the first thing I searched for on the Rijksstudio website, and this one caught my eye.
Interesting Painting #2: Willem van de Velde (II), A Ship on the High Seas Caught by a Squall, Known as ‘The Gust’, c. 1680, oil on canvas, h 77 cm × w 63.5 cm × h 90.5 cm × w 78.5 cm × d 6.5 cm
Really dramatic scenes of ships at sea getting caught in storms always get my attention in museums, and I’m looking forward to finding this one and others like it in person when we visit the museum.