This volume is the catalogue which accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts from March to May and then at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from June to October 2012. The Directors' Forward says that this is the first exhibition ever to be solely devoted to van Aelst's work, and one can only be astonished that it has taken so long. Although successful, famous, and eventually even wealthy in his own day (1627-1683), by the nineteenth century he was virtually forgotten, and from then until now he has been acclaimed and sought after by connoisseurs and curators but largely unknown to the general public. (He gets only ten lines in "The Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists" and is not listed at all in the Penguin.) That should now change: this exhibition and catalogue reveal van Aelst to be a major painter, and surely one of the finest still-life painters in a golden age not otherwise lacking in artistic talent. "Elegance" and "refinement" are exactly the right terms to describe this extraordinary painting. Having trained and worked in Delft, Paris, and Florence (at the Medici court), van Aelst was ready and able to satisfy the tastes of the most sophisticated and demanding Dutch collectors. His use of the most expensive pigments and materials and his dedication to "upper-crust" themes like spectacular floral arrangements, tables sumptuously laid out with silver salvers and golden goblets, and the recently emerging genres of the game-piece and hunting still life (game that looks "more asleep than dead" in the neat formulation of one of the commentators) assured him a market among the increasingly affluent burghers of Amsterdam. But it is his techniques that are really mind-boggling, a dazzling facture that creates stunning visual effects in perfectly rendered textures of velvet, fur, feathers, polished gunstocks or polished marble. The brushwork is virtually microscopic in its management: the fly on a flower is visible to the naked eye; use your 3x or 4x desktop magnifier and you can see how delicately painted the fly's legs are; use your magnifier on the macrographic blow-up (many of which are provided) and you can see how he painted even the veins in the fly's wings! The same for feathers: what looks like a brushstroke is revealed under magnification to be a dozen finer strokes. And there's the almost invisible dot that's a highlight in a mouse's eye--etc. This is all deliberate preciosity, of course, but not illusionism as an end in itself; it serves the brilliant reproduction of a minutely observed reality.
The catalogue presents twenty-nine of van Aelst's oeuvre of around 150 known works, along with many comparison illustrations and detail studies, in excellent reproductions (this is a Skira Rizzoli book) and accompanied by detailed commentaries. The five introductory essays, all by acknowledged experts in the field, are very informative and well written, and there is a good bibliography and index. But it's the amazing paintings you won't want to miss.