Willem van Aelst’s Missing Mouse

At three hundred and eighty-five years old, Willem van Aelst must be the oldest artist ever to have his first solo show. This past spring the Dutch painter’s works debuted at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and have since landed at Washington’s National Gallery of Art,* making his parents proud. The van Aelsts of Delft, Holland, had seen to their son’s early training, pushing him to study with the elder van Aelst’s brother, the still life painter Evert van Aelst, before his admittance into Delft’s Guild of Saint Luke—the same trade organization of painters to which the younger van Aelst’s contemporary Johannes Vermeer belonged.

After a ten-year sojourn abroad—in France where he learned the commercial value of choosing imagery to appeal to the tastes of his aristocratic patrons, and in Italy where he painted for the Medici—he returned to Holland in his late twenties. He spent the rest of his life, tirelessly and meticulously painting the still life—never a landscape, never a portrait but variations on the arrangements of things, switching out subject matter to keep the works fresh, to keep I would think himself entertained. Sometimes we see a peach in place of a plum, a partridge in place of a pocket watch, and more often than not, a huge bouquet of flowers. Van Aelst, a brilliant technician who understood composition, was clearly fond of depicting the mouse. Perhaps because the mouse symbolized intemperance (vanitas again and again and again), perhaps because the mouse’s fur coat simply added the right texture.

Of the artist’s more than 150 extant works, the curators chose twenty-eight for the two-city exhibition, and of those works are four with a mouse. There’s Still Life with a Mouse and a Candle, which I find lovely for its atypically quiet tones and pared down objects—and I might add for its dark neutral background that doesn’t remind me of air-siphoning black velvet. There’s also Fruit Still Life with a Mouse: a jewel of a painting, measuring approximately 11 x 9 inches, in which the mouse and the vines that the small creature clings to wondrously float between the edges instead of resting on some fusty fragment of marble. With the other two paintings, you have to look closely to find the tiny rodent; their titles, Vase of Flowers with a Watch and Forest Floor with Thistle, don’t give the mouse away.

But there’s one van Aelst mouse who, alas, missed the show, staying at home in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Kassel, Germany. According to the exhibition catalogue, Still Life with Fruit, Mouse, and Butterflies didn’t quite measure up to the selected—and to my mind rather stilted—Still Life with Fruit, Nuts, Butterflies, and Other Insects on a Ledge. The curator Tanya Paul writes, “the Kassel painting” is compositionally “less focused.” She adds, “The two paintings are undoubtedly related to one another and yet remarkably different in character and ultimate effect.”[1] She points to the grapes and the grapevine in each; she fails to mention the mouse.

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*The NGA show ends October 14, 2012.

[1] Tanya Paul, James Clifton, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., et al., Elegance and Refinement: The Still-Life Paintings of Willem van Aelst, SkiraRizzoli, 2012.

Additional sources: Ken Johnson, “Pronks for the Memory: Rendering Luxury,” New York Times, August 9, 2012; Philip Kennicott, “At National Gallery of Art, Willem van Aelst’s object lessons,” Washington Post, June 21, 2012.

(Image: © Willem van Aelst, Still Life with Fruit, Mouse, and Butterflies, GK 447, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, approx. 30 x 23 in., 1677, reproduced for non-commercial use only, with grateful acknowledgement to JL.)


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