Behind the Artwork

Enjoy these fascinating details about works of art from the Stark Museum of Art collection or special exhibitions.

Written by Stark Museum of Art Curator Sarah Boehme, Ph. D.

This work shows the mastery of Willem van Aelst in painting still lifes. That is the genre, or category, of art that depicts nonliving objects. Notice how Van Aelst painted the assorted items with precise realism. He showed the delicate feathers of the plump partridge with its splayed wings. The soft texture of the velvet bag and the cold, reflective character of the metal clasps and strap rings create a contrast. Still life paintings became especially popular in seventeenth-century Holland. In a time of increasing commercial trade and rising prosperity, still life paintings focused on personal possessions, which were often luxurious or excessive. For this painting, the artist used a precious pigment, lapus lazuli, to paint the blue bag and feathers, thus making the painting itself more financially valuable.

Hunting subjects were appropriate for still life paintings. They combined human-made objects like the hunting gear and the red falcon hood with natural subjects like the dead game. Hunting presented a common theme, the meditation on life and death. In this painting, the lifeless quality of the dead birds graphically presents that theme. Van Aelst enhanced the sense of death and decay by painting a live fly on the dead partridge. Was the artist also trying to “fool the eye” by making it seem like a real fly? One other element of the painting links it to the theme of mortality, inevitable death. A marble ledge supports the arrangement, and below it is a carved panel. This furniture resembles a sarcophagus, the stone coffin used for burials in ancient time. Scholars have identifed the carving as a scene in the life of Diana, the goddess of the hunt in Roman mythology. Thus the carving links hunting with the nobility of ancient times. 

image: Willem van Aelst (1627 – after 1687), “Hunting Still Life with a Velvet Bag on a Marble Ledge,” c. 1665, oil on canvas, 26 1/2 × 21 1/4 inches, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, 2002.3. Image courtesy of Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston. Photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The “Presidential Plaque, Thomas Jefferson” is one of four plaques that Steuben Glass produced to commemorate major Presidents of the United States. Bruce Moore designed imagery for all the “Presidential Plaques.” The artist depicted Thomas Jefferson as a writer, seated with quill pen in hand.  Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence. The inscription quotes the most famous words from that document. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The other plaques honor George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Moore drew George Washington in a kneeling pose. The posture recalls a story about Washington kneeling in prayer during the War of Independence. The text comes from Washington’s Farewell Address. Moore presented Abraham Lincoln standing with his head uncovered. The stirring words come from his second inaugural address. The artist portrayed Theodore Roosevelt speaking from a podium, evoking his phrase “bully pulpit.” The words are from an essay Roosevelt wrote on “True American Ideals.” Steuben made the fourth “Presidential Plaque” at H.J. Lutcher Stark’s request. 

image: Bruce Moore (1905 – 1980) engraving designer, Donald Pollard (1924 – 1994) glass designer, Steuben Glass (founded 1903), “Presidential Plaque, Thomas Jefferson,” 1959, engraved crystal with ebony-finish wood base, 15 1/2 × 5 × 2 inches, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, Bequest of H.J. Lutcher Stark, 1965, 41.8.2.B