Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Vermeer and Willem Kalf’s Pronkstillevens

Although Vermeer quickly moved from humble (the Milkmaid) to more affluent subjects, he never took it to the level of Willem Kalf and followers. Kalf developed a style called “pronkstilleven” or “ostentatious still life” , these were highly detailed paintings portraying the riches of the very rich in the Dutch Republic. A typical pronkstilleven would be an arrangements of Nautilus cups, very decorated silver jars, (Wan-li a.k.a Kraak ) fine Chinese porcelain, buckelpokals, outrageously expensive oriental rugs, expensive weapons, works of art, etc. Kalf normally placed them on tables but some of his followers like Jan Davidsz de Heem, Van Beyeren and others used rooms. 

Kalf was also a successful Art dealer, based in Rotterdam, a City with access to the sea and the home of many rich and wealthy Dutch merchants. In contrast, Vermeer lived in Delft which was a more modest city. Vermeer lacked the rich patrons of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. His main patrons were Pieter Claeez Van Ruijven and his wife Maria de Knuijt who amassed most of Vermeer works, twenty-one of the thirty-five known today.
So, this is the background information. I thought about a story that would connect Vermeer and Kalf so that I could explore it visually. Here is what I got:
Vermeer started looking for new patrons or dealers that could help him break the lock that Pieter Claesz Van Ruijven and his wife Maria de Knuijt had on his works. Van Ruijven paid him well, however, Vermeer he thought that he could get higher prices from other sources. After all, Rembrandt Van Rijn was being paid handsome sums in Amsterdam for his historic paintings so why not him in Delft.
One of his colleagues in the Delft’s Guild of Saint Luke, suggested to him to meet Willem Kalf, a well-known painter, turned dealer and appraiser who lived in Rotterdam. (the photo painting at right was inspired by the works of Abraham Van Beijeren who was one of Kalf's followers)
Vermeer took his favorite showing piece “Allegory of Painting”; and went to see Kalf in Rotterdam. He was quite impressed by Kalf’s detailed works that included richly decorated silverwares, Chinese porcelain dishes, fancy Venetian glasses and exotic fruits. Vermeer however, did not like the darkness and fuzziness of Kalf’s backgrounds, he decided to try a different approach by incorporating some of Kalf designs but make them his own. He then included similar objects in but used his recognizable background (see at right) with the light coming from the left, one of his Spanish chairs and included one of Kalf’s own paintings (this particular one is closer to a Van Beijeren) in the background. This way he was sure to impress Kalf enough, to obtain representation.

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