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    Curated: Willem van Aelst’s Flowers in a Silver Vase (1663)

    At the Legion of Honor, Gallery 15

    Willem van Aelst initially trained and became a master in his native Delft, then traveled to France and Italy, before ultimately settling in Amsterdam. The Italian spelling of his name, used for the signature of this and other post Italian period paintings, adds a veneer of distinction and suggests these foreign experiences and contacts, most particularly his association with patrons such as Ferdinand II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

    As there are layers of significance to the artist’s signature, so the imagery and meaning of this flower-piece is artfully layered. In an apparently informal profusion of blooms and foliage, the artist carefully constructs a dynamic baroque composition. Dramatic lighting is choreographed to emphasize the principal blooms, creating a diagonal across the picture’s surface.

    Equally baroque is the activation of the entire scene, beyond the object’s actual potential for movement. This is achieved by an insistence on the irregularity of the organic forms, which curve and counter-curve out of, and back into, the mass of the bouquet.

    Several traditional symbols of time’s fleeting nature are included, despite the joyous overall nature of the piece. Note the tattered ribbons of the open watchcase and the fully opened tulip ready to drop its petals. Such allusions to the transience of life and beauty invest this seemingly straightforward still life with a moralizing aspect, transforming it into a vanitas still life, an essay on the vanity of life.

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