Set against a dark background and bathed in a cool light and crisp atmosphere, this carefully arranged and supremely elegant composition conveys a sense of material opulence in Hubert van Ravesteyn’s characteristically restrained fashion. A native of Dordrecht, where he was active throughout his career, van Ravesteyn was known for his rustic barn interiors which prominently featured peasants or animals, and still lifes of fruit and vegetables set within kitchens or barns. From the 1660s on however, he began painting more refined arrangements such as this one, which – displayed on a marble ledge – features a velvet tablecloth trimmed with gold, an expensive Chinese porcelain bowl and white stoneware vessel, a precious knife with an ebony and ivory handle, and such luxury delicacies as the orange, with beautifully crumpled leaves that create a delicate serpentine pattern. The picture reveals van Ravesteyn’s characteristic precision in the rendering of minute details, such as the variegated walnut shells and the woody husk around the meat of the exposed nut. The present work also shows van Ravesteyn’s remarkable skill in capturing the effects of light on various surfaces, such as the subtle play of highlights and shadows on the jug, the translucency of the roemer glass, the exquisitely rendered water drops dripping down the pitcher and the gleaming reflections on the knife handle. Two Amsterdam artists, Jan Jansz. van de Velde (circa 1627-1672) and Jan Fris (1619/20-1663), were producing similar still lifes in the mid-17th century, suggesting that the artist may have lived for a period in Amsterdam.
While wine, water, and walnuts possessed Christian symbolism - standing respectively for purity, Christ’s blood and the wood of the Cross - the overall meaning intended in this picture may be far more whimsical. The prominence of the walnuts in particular may reflect van Ravesteyn’s awareness of a print in Joris Hoefnagel’s Archetypa with the humorous Latin epigram ‘Alea parva Nuces, et non damnosa videtur; Saepe tamen pueris abstulit illa nates’ (gambling with nuts [often used as dice] is thought a harmless game, but it has also raised welts [like the bumps on the walnuts].) Whether appreciated for their sly iconography or sheer beauty, still lifes of this type by van Ravesteyn must have been held in high regard by his discerning Dordrecht clientele.