Still lifes helpfully reminded viewers of the prosperity of their republic. At the height of the Golden Age, painters such as Willem Kalf produced fancy pronk (“display”) paintings depicting items like Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays. In Kalf’s Still Life with a Chinese bowl, a Nautilus Cup and Fruit (1662), the glistening effects of light, texture, and color foreground Kalf’s aspiration, like other painters of the era, to outcraft the craftsmen of the precious objects he depicts—such as the Persian carpet on the table, silver tray, and Chinese porcelain sugar bowl.
This bounty draws in different corners of the globe, a proud nod to the ever-expanding Dutch empire. By unpacking specific objects here, seemingly disparate cultures come together, connected by the Netherlands’s globalizing ambitions. The Ming sugar bowl, for instance, simultaneously suggests two different cross-cultural exchanges, one more sinister than the other. The sugar obliquely references one of the most barbaric elements of the global Dutch empire: the horrific, widely documented treatment of slaves on South American plantations. Meanwhile, the typical blue-and-white pattern on the bowl would later be adopted by Delft potters, leading to the famous “Delft Blue” of Dutch earthenware—which, therefore, has Chinese origins. Timothy Brook contends that such Chinese porcelains were so highly valued that the dish in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted around 1657, would have drawn the contemporary viewer’s eye from the young woman.
Abraham van Beyeren’s Still Life with Lobster and Fruit (ca. 1650s) is a far cry from the relative modesty of breakfast paintings made earlier in the century. Instead of white cloth, here the table is laid with a Persian carpet. Lobster replaces herring, imported wine is on offer instead of beer. Exotic fruits from warmer climates spill out of silver-gilt trays. Amidst these extravagant luxuries, the pocket watch in the lower right corner would have suggested to viewers the brevity of life.