So real, you can almost taste it

Pieter Claesz (ca. 1597 to 1660) devoted his career exclusively to still life - to painting food and the accouterments of dining set out on a table top. He lived and worked in Haarlem and is considered an outstanding master of this kind of painting in the 17th century Netherlands.

"Fruit still life with gilded tazza and cheese basket" (1624-25) is among his earliest known paintings and owes much to slightly earlier still-life painters, particularly Floris van Dyck.

But in his 20s, Claesz already showed signs of independence. Van Dyck generally looked at his tables from a high viewpoint. By lowering the viewpoint, Claesz made the objects - particularly those overlapping the front edge of the table and casting shadows on the hanging white cloth - seem much closer. You could almost touch them.

Apart from sight, other senses strongly engaged by this painting are taste and touch. There is, however, no hint in it of a later tendency in his work toward "vanitas" - the notion that art should remind us that life is transient, that "all is vanity."

Throughout his career, there is an evident tug-of-war between images of opulent good living (he painted for rich clients' houses) and a will to be restrained. It is almost as if he relished extravagance - and the magic of painting it - while also feeling he (or his viewers) shouldn't enjoy it quite so much. He joined other Haarlem painters in their tendency to reduce the rich variety of color in pictures by using few earth colors in an almost monochromatic style.

This early, colorful work displays a highly developed skill in painting realistic textures and surfaces - from the sliced bread to the cheeses, and from the basketry to the glistening of the tazza. The nuts and the translucent fruits scattered on the table are highly realistic.

This painting is satisfactory in its order and stability. Yet it essentially conveys a passing moment, evidence of eating in progress, or of leftover remnants.

Cheeses did not remain a favorite feature of Claesz's later paintings, but here they are prominent and strangely topped by a dish. Its temporary balancing act adds a touch of spontaneous poise - or uncertainty.

'Pieter Claesz: Master of Haarlem Still Life" is on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., until Dec. 31.

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