Our time is running out

Still Life with a Silver Jug and a Porcelain Bowl (1655-1660) by Willem Kalf
Still Life with a Silver Jug and a Porcelain Bowl (1655-1660) by Willem Kalf

Doesn’t that silver jug look proud? Like it’s catching the light with its uplifted torso? The porcelain bowl looks like it’s trying to compete. But it doesn’t quite match the beauty of the ornamental silver decanter. The painter, Willem Kalf (1619-1693), liked to depict rare Asian objects that circulated in the low countries. And he liked to mix it up. The inside of the Wan Li-bowl in Still Life with a Silver Jug and a Porcelain Bowl is decorated like a typical ‘klapmuts’ – a bowl with a flat rim – from the early 17th century. The decoration on the outside, however, is based on more contemporary bowl decoration.

The luxurious objects in Kalf’s still life make it a lavish showpiece, a ‘pronkstilleven’ as it is called in Dutch. This style of painting originated from Antwerp, but soon spread to the Dutch Republic. These pronkstillevens can usually be interpreted as vanitas paintings containing a moral lesson. If you look closely at Kalf’s still life, you’ll see a watch lying next to the bowl. Hourglasses and watches are used to tell us that time is running out; life is fleeting and all that is (good or bad) will end. And in case you missed the message, Kalf also painted a peeled lemon. This was also used as a symbol of time passing.

What about Lady Marmalade?

If life is fleeting, it is best to enjoy it thoroughly. In the protestant Republic in the 17th century, you could do that by enjoying exotic fruits – if your wallet permitted it. And if you were more adventurous and a man, you’d try a jam made for men: marmalade. Although in 17th century Holland it was sometimes still called ‘queevleesch’. This name actually refers to the original ingredient quince or the Dutch ‘kweepeer’. The Greeks used to slowly cook quinces with honey, which would set when cooled down. The recipe was still used in the Mediterranean and known under the Portuguese name for quinces, namely ‘marmelo’, when the British encountered it in the 16th century. A century later they still used the name marmalade for their jelly recipe containing citrus fruits. Eventually, the Dutch couldn’t help but surrender to this new name and turned their ‘queevleesch’ into ‘marmelade’.

Marmalade wasn’t actually forbidden for women, but it was seen as too bitter for most women. And this idea isn’t far-fetched. Women tend to have more sensitive palates than men. Research from Yale University even claims that women have more taste buds on their tongues. Now, the marmalade of Rijks Conserven perfectly combines the intentions of the painter with the painters own ingredients: life is fleeting and that message can have a bitter taste. But it’s also very suitable for women.

All of the Rijks Conserven, including the marmelade, are available at the webshop of the Rijksmuseum.

Fenneke van der Aa

Fenneke van der Aa is an art historian and journalist. For Spoon of Art she explores and writes about the merging of art, history and food.

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