Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Silver Ewer

(jazz piano music) – [Voiceover] 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. – [Voiceover] And this painting is called Still Life with a Silver Ewer. And the silver ewer is pretty fabulous and ostentatious and luxurious, but then there’s that gold goblet stand behind it and that glass goblet with a fabulously complicated stem, and then of course, that
Chinese-style porcelain bowl, maybe from China, next to that. – [Voiceover] And Kalf is actually known for including Chinese
ceramics in his still lifes. These were fabulously precious objects, and it’s an important reminder
when looking at still lifes that what we’re looking
at are real treasures. These are things that
really speak to the wealth and prosperity of Holland
in the 17th century. – [Voiceover] Still life
is an old subject matter in art history, but
really comes into its own in the 17th century. But 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 they are always within
a religious context, often with symbolic religious meaning, but here not within that
explicitly religious context. – [Voiceover] 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, and you can just make out the hands of that ornate gold clock, and that is a reminder of time, which in turn is a
reminder of our mortality, our eventual death. So even though we might
be enjoying, literally, the fruits of life, all of
this will come to an end. – [Voiceover] 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. – [Voiceover] But look at
the surface of that lemon, look at the way that the
artist is just 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. 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. – [Voiceover] I love
the bulges on the lemon that sits on the table, but also a little off the table and in our space. It’s all so close, we could reach out and touch it and enjoy it ourselves. And so in that way it reminds us about the pleasures of life very palpably. – [Voiceover] But 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 a stage for these objects. And 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. And 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. – [Voiceover] And 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
hundreds years later in this beautiful still life painting by Willem Kalf. (jazz piano music)


  1. These videos are fantastic, I appreciate so much the work you all put into to these. makes me want to study art history in college!

  2. It's sumptuous, It's sheer beauty. My… This color contrast of light, both dark and brilliant; this 'fondu' effect.
    thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. I'm curious as to what makes this Baroque? Is it because it fell into this era? I understand the use of light, and the "closeness" (wanting to engage the viewer) of the composition has Baroque qualities, but is part of this style of composition the fact that the subject itself is still life? I would want to show off my skills by having the objects a close to the viewer as possible so that it feels more real.

  4. This type of painting is known as a vanitas, which is the term for the symbolic use of mortality in Dutch painting, similar to memento mori.

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