Let’s milk this subject some more

This is going to be another observation about our visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art last month, and yes, it’s coming from one of the Great Unwashed, so feel free to skip ahead if that bothers you.

We pretty much toured the entire museum, which included the multi-faceted European section; plenty of examples of the styles and techniques usually considered ‘classic’ and what most people think of when it comes to discussing art – you know, Rembrandt and Botticelli and so on. I admit we skipped past the Italian Medieval section, which mostly consisted of flat depictions of people with halos. Grouped together as they were, it was easy to see an overriding style, a popularity of approach within each of the periods, but there’s always the question of whether the majority of artists at those times tended to stay within those styles, or if only those that did were selected to represent the galleries (or even became popular because they stuck with a particular style.) Were there cubists during the Renaissance that people simply thought were talentless hacks?

But then, in the Dutch section we came across a prominently-displayed still life, Banquet Piece by Jan Jansz. den Uyl, which was immediately impressive. After a very large number of drab-colored depictions of people with disturbing proportions in unrealistic poses, this one had an almost photographic quality to it, inordinate attention to detail and accuracy. Listen, I’m cool with impressionism and moods and such, but I personally find the real talent is depicting something as it is. There’s a part of me that believes too many artists, struggling to get the skin tones right, simply give up and claim it’s representative of some damn thing or another. But hey, you can see it for yourself because it’s public domain under Wikimedia Commons:

Banquet Piece by Jan Jansz. den Uyl
Banquet Piece – Jan Jansz. den Uyl, from the North Carolina Museum of Art collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Clicking on this, by the way, will take you to the source page where you can see it in better detail than we even could in person. It took me a little while to find this, because I couldn’t remember the name (I was thinking Van Der Rijk,) but my webbernets expertise paid off.

I will draw attention to the light quality overall, especially the reflections and shadows, but also the texture of the linen – exacting attention to detail. Moreover, the perspective on all these elaborately-shaped vessels is bang-on, something that can be hard to get right even when copying from real life or a photo – it’s easy to take the curve a little too much in the wrong direction (yes, I speak from a bare minimum of experience, because I still draw and paint a little.) Note the highlights on the golden centerpiece, and the reflection of the linen in the lid of the overturned pitcher to the left. It’s easy to believe that he was working from a staged scene in front of him rather than imagination, to be this accurate, and it’s still impressive for that.


There’s one little aspect that was missed, something that didn’t quite ring true. If you like these kind of challenges, I’ll let you check out the image to see if you spot the same thing that I did.

I’ll just add a few dead lines in here to carry the reveal down out of immediate sight.

No peeking ahead now.

Dum de dum de dum de dum…

Found it? Okay, well, first off, I’ll mention the owl that can be seen at the top of the golden thing, because Uyl (the artist’s name) is Dutch for owl, and so he usually included an owl someplace in his paintings. That’s not what I was talking about, but a bit of trivia that was listed on the plaque in the museum, which would have made it much easier to find had I remembered it.

What I’m referring to instead is the glass goblet right in the center. I suspect, actually, that this was not part of his original composition or the setting itself, but added later on, because the details seen through the glass have no distortion at all. From long experience shooting into aquariums and various glass containers, I know that even seeing at an angle through perfectly smooth and clear glass will distort what’s beyond it, and this will be enormously so when it comes to curved glass – that’s what defines a lens, after all. But the objects behind it in the painting haven’t the faintest indication of this, and having gone into the really big version available at the source, I can find no evidence that it was not painted over top of the finished painting, a later addition. In fact, there’s another bit of evidence for this, something that I didn’t notice until writing this post. Now that you know where to look, can you spot that?

[I really am curious to know how many people find it with these clues – maybe it’s obvious, maybe not, I don’t know. I just know I missed the second one, even though I spotted the first in the museum within a minute or so of examining the painting.]

There appears to be no reflection whatsoever of the glass goblet in that same pitcher that reflects the linen, though you can see the reflection of its own handle, as well as the centerpiece and possibly the candle holder. There might be a faint indication of it, the bright spots between the reflections of the gold/brass items, but that’s hardly as distinct as I would imagine it to be, seeing as how the goblet appears to be resting against the handle of the pitcher itself.

It’s easy for me to believe that the goblet was added in, perhaps to provide a little more detail to the center of the scene, perhaps because the artist wanted to play around with glass and reflections some more (and except for the lack of distortion, it’s really well done.) So far, nothing that I’ve come across has made any mention of it, but I admit I haven’t looked very hard into the painting’s history. I know some artists often tinkered with their work, never really finding their favorite pieces to be ‘done,’ and I’ve been that way with model kits at times (not trying to make a direct comparison, just observing that I know the feeling,) so maybe this was the case here? Can’t say, but I felt like pointing it out. I have to admit that I appreciate the realism that the still life trend brought to paintings, and that I don’t even want to know how many hours this took.

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