Private collection, Belgium, since the early nineteenth century, until 2013
This previously unpublished painting is an outstanding example of the art of Abraham Mignon. A native of Frankfurt, Mignon trained in that city with the flower painter Jacob Marrell (1613/14–1681), before moving to Utrecht in 1664, where he entered the studio of Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/84). Like so many still-life painters of his generation, Mignon was greatly impressed by the brilliance of de Heem, whose influence resonates in much of his work.
Here, Mignon depicts a magnificent swag of flowers and fruit, suspended before a niche. The festoon is composed of stems of ivy, tied at each end with blue ribbons and intertwined with spring and summer blooms: these include roses, tulips, poppies, hollyhocks, marigolds, morning glory, viburnum, a carnation, anemone, cornflower, borage, a branch of apple blossom and the red spikes of amaranth. Tucked in among the flowers are bunches of grapes, sprays of wild strawberries and blackberries, a branch of plums, ears of wheat and maize cobs. On the right, hanging from a fine cord, is a cluster of dead birds, comprising a pair of kingfishers, a great tit, a bullfinch and other small birds. Beneath them on a stone ledge are some oysters, and further to the left, a pocket watch, with its key attached by a blue satin ribbon, some matches, a glowing red pipe and a smouldering taper. Close scrutiny reveals a host of small creatures – earwigs, ants, beetles, snails, spiders, flies and caterpillars – that creep and crawl among the plants and glistening drops of dew that catch the light. The vibrant reds, pinks, oranges, blues and white of the flowers’ petals and the birds’ plumage emerge in a blaze of colour from the dark background.
Despite a career lasting barely fifteen years, Mignon made a significant contribution to Dutch still-life painting in the second half of the seventeenth century. In addition to lavish flower pieces, he produced still lifes of fruit and other objects, forest floor still lifes and game pieces. Although no dated paintings are known, a plausible chronology for his oeuvre can be constructed on the basis of comparison with the work of Jan Davidsz. de Heem. The present painting can be dated to the period in the late 1660s or early 1670s (i), when Mignon was working closely with de Heem in his Utrecht studio. Following the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1672, de Heem returned to Antwerp, the city in which he had spent much of his career and where he was to end his days.
There is no mistaking Mignon’s debt to de Heem in this splendid floral festoon. The wealth of colour and the profusion of naturalistic detail, as well as the way in which the various elements are subtly drawn together by the rhythmic curving stems and the delicate stalks of wheat, are all characteristic of the style which Mignon developed under the guidance of his mentor. The swag form itself is also modelled on a type that de Heem had developed in Antwerp around the middle of the century. De Heem, in his turn, took his inspiration for his swags and garlands of flowers and fruit from the Flemish tradition of garland painting, as practised by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Daniel Seghers and others. Mignon painted a few other still lifes of this type, for example, his Still Life of Hanging Flowers and Fruit, in the Baltimore Museum of Art (ii), or the Garland of Flowers (iii), in the Statens Museum for Kunst, in Copenhagen, but none is as large or as ambitious as the present work.
The components of this painting, whilst celebrating the abundance of the natural world, may also be recognised as an allegory of the Four Elements: Earth is represented by the flowers and fruit, the produce of the land; Water by the oysters, the fruits of sea; Air by the birds and Fire by the smouldering pipe and taper. Taken together these elements symbolise the whole of God’s creation. Lest we should overlook the painting’s rich store of meaning, the artist has included a small scrap of paper in his still life, inscribed with the words, wat zij alle viere baeren dat vernieuwt zich all jaren (What the four of them have given birth to is renewed every year). As in most of Mignon’s still lifes, the sense of Vanitas is also present here. The transience of all worldly things is indicated by the pocket watch, the smoking pipe and taper, the insects and the dead birds. The flowers in all their splendour will not last. Already some of the grapes are past their best and a fly has come to settle on the pink breast feathers of the bullfinch, reminding us of the speed with which beauty will decay.
his help in dating this work.
ii Abraham Mignon, Hanging Flowers and Fruit, signed, on canvas, 52 x 66 cm, the Baltimore Museum of Art,
Baltimore, Massachusetts, inv. no. 57.32.
iii Abraham Mignon, Garland of Flowers, signed, on panel, 41 x 54.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst,
Copenhagen, inv. no. KMS315.