Flowers in a glass vase by the Dutch painter Jacob van Walscapelle is only midway in size between A1 and A2 paper sizes, an oil painting dwarfed by many of the larger canvases around it at the V&A Museum in London. What it lacks in scale it makes up for in quality. It is as if the light-infused oil paint applied just after the middle of the 17th century is still blazing off its canvas some 350 years later.
A glass vase of flowers stands on a marble table top in a black room. Light falls onto it from the left. Everything has the sharpness of photography, a pin-sharpness that we don’t automatically associate with still-life oil paintings. Its clarity and vibrancy catches one’s breath.
A painter’s still life begins with a blank canvas and works towards a demonstration of the painter’s skills. As the paint was drying on van Walscapelle’s canvas the French Academy proclaimed that the still life was the lowest genre of art, ranked beneath everything, landscapes, portraits, the lot. They excluded anything human so were deemed to be base and undeserving of too much attention. More modern conceptions allow the still life to be a basis for experimentation, which may – or may not be – a step up.
But there is much more than baseness in van Walscapelle’s canvas, not just stems, petals and leaves. A ladybird, butterflies, a fly and a hefty bug are settled into the composition, perched, exploring, gorging themselves. A snail slides away, sated. Several leaves are past their prime, moth-eaten maybe, and aging. Stems are wilting. There is a transition from freshly cut – with some blooms not yet open – to going to seed. This is more than still life. It is a glimpse of things in transition, a slide into the dark captured for eternity to hang deservedly on a fine museum’s wall. How many before me have been provoked by this dazzling canvas to look inward to their own mortality, I wonder?