The other day, on a whim, we went to a thrift shop and something happened that you fantasize about but never expect. We found a masterpiece. The painting was sitting in a corner behind a lot of faded prints from the 1980s, with “$12.99”. scrawled on the back. We thought it was probably a clever knock-off but bought it anyway. Only later did we have it confirmed that it was, in fact, the original work of a Dutch master from about 1650. Here it is (slightly cropped).
It’s, unfortunately, unsigned, which places with a great many paintings of its kind. In fact, as many as 5,000 artists produced almost 10 million paintings back in the day, of which about 100,000 still survive. While we don’t know which one of the thousands of artists painted it, there’s still a lot we can tell, or at least guess, about the piece. It’s been a fascinating journey researching it alongside a number of friends, some with considerable professional expertise and all with enthusiasm. The first point of interest is actually on the back. There’s a typed label, which looks like it might have been from an auction.
I have no idea what “R/E/” means, but the painting itself is obviously autumnal and the “No 3” to me suggests that this was the third, “Autumn,” in a series of four seasonal works. Because it’s typed, it seems to me that the paintings might conceivably have been kept as a set until at least the 1920s, when manual typewriters began to be in common use. Note also the back of the frame, which shows damage by wood-boring beetles. This identified the frame as being old and helped our expert authenticate the work. I also thought that its being a Fall image might give a clue about the two invertebrates pictured in the painting and might also help to give more clues of where the painting originated.
The first of these is a crazy sort of hornet thing. It’s supposed to be an insect, and has wasp-like eyes, but also four legs along its body and what look like two more cricket-like legs tacked onto the back.
I set about reviewing the wasps and other European Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants etc.) hoping that something would twig. Nothing seemed right. And then I hit upon the idea that it was a wasp mimic.
And eureka, there it was. The hornet moth Sesia apiformis. It has the wasp-like eyes and an almost entirely yellow abdomen, which doesn’t seem to be characteristic of any European wasps I could find (you Dutch hymenopterologists out there, feel free to have a go…) It’s a member of the “clearwing months, so, when folded, they look like thick brown limbs. Since it doesn’t seem like the painter was very good at insects in the first place, he/she might not have realized they weren’t legs, especially if the animal were painted after death.
In Dutch it’s the “Hoornaarvlinder,” and this website shows the distribution of the species throughout the Netherlands. It also shows that the species is most evident in July, dropping off precipitously in August. I admit that doesn’t support my theory relating it to an Autumn painting, however if the specimen were dead anyway, it might not be inconceivable.
This isn’t the only invertebrate in the painting. There’s also a land snail. In the painting, it’s crawling up the stem of one of the bunches of grapes.
Accepting a few anatomical eccentricities, it’s clearly the “mid-yellow banded form” of the European grove snail, Lemon snail or brown-lipped snail Cepaea nemoralis. Unfortunately for my search, it’s one of the most common species of land snail in Europe. The species is found in France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, eastwards to Poland, parts of Italy and as far north as southern Sweden. So, any hope of narrowing down information about the painter or the person who commissioned it doesn’t rest with this species.
That leaves us with another potential clue, the glass with a small amount of red wine in it, as if somebody’s taken a drink already.
It’s posed with a stalk of wheat (more about that later). As near as I can tell, it’s Venetian glass. It’s shape, conical bowl and bulbous stem, place it around 1650 to 1675, which is in keeping with the rest of the painting.
For comparison, here is one from the same period. The details about the style of glass on the right are at this link. The glass in the painting is has the same a thin, trumpet shaped bowl and, although its obscured, probably sits on a conical folded foot. It’s called a “façon de Venise wine glass” meaning “in the French manner.” In this period, that was a popular glass-making style in England and, in fact, that could be where the glass originated. The bowls of Dutch wine glasses of the mid-17th century were often more bulbous, suggesting it was an expensive import. See also the Dutch glass in this painting or at the bottom of this post.
The last piece of exploration is the plate on which most of the fruit is sitting. It’s propped up at a jaunty angle, suggesting a sort of cornucopia and the abundance of the harvest. It is a blue and white Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty, on which the less expensive Delft ceramics were based. The rim of the plate divided evenly into motifs, reminiscent of this one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plate is so similar to the one in this photos, it makes me wonder if it could, in fact, also have been from the Wanli period. But if it were, it’s a style that was 30 years out of date when this painting was likely produced. Of course, a valuable possession would certainly be passed down from one generation to the next, making it not surprising to see a 30-year-old object in a painting like this.
Who owned the plate and the glass? Was it the person who commissioned the painting, hoping to display his wealth to people who came to see the painting? Or maybe it was the artist who perhaps, like Vermeer, had many objects and even clothing on hand in his studio for his models to wear and use as props.
A contemporary viewer would have been easily able to read much more into this paining that we can today. Aside from the wealth we can deduce from the setting, the still life is steeped in religious symbolism. This wonderful article in Art Space describes this iconography in detail. This painting is a vanitas, reminding us of the temporary nature of life and judgement that awaits in the hereafter.
An empty glass, according to Art Space indicates the ephemeral nature of life. But this one is slightly full, with blood red wine. It’s also posed with a wheat stalk. Could this be the blood and body of Christ? The snail, as well as the blemished peach suggest death and decay, while the pomegranate indicates resurrection, noting the popular story of Persephone. It’s really a long list. The wasp is the Devil, the peach is purity. Essentially, anything you could find around the kitchen or pantry could be a symbol of something in a vanitas painting.
So. Art is what you make of it. What excites me personally is having a shared aesthetic with somebody who lived four hundred years ago. The painting hangs in my home, just as it did theirs, and conjures up thoughts of the limitations of humans and nature, perhaps much as it did for them. In these turbulent times, it’s grounding to connect to our humanity through previous generations and realize that whatever happened, people got through it and brought with them culture, an appreciation of beauty, and an unstoppable thirst for knowledge.
Postscript: Our friend has another friend, who works at a major auction house. They said “You friends’ paintings looks to be a later thing, probably 19th Century, based on compositions by Jan Davidsz de Heem. We see a lot of these, which were produced as high end decoration in an Old Master style.” I considered reworking the entire post but, as it stands, the focus is on the exploration of the natural history and the symbolism, both of which stand. Thanks again to everybody who had a look at it and helped with working out its mysteries.
Love this Eric – you must have felt like a giddy thief away with it for 13
bucks – “let’s get outta here” 😉
Eric, wish we met; wish we were acquaintances. A lifelong Pittsburgh resident, father of a CMU art professor, a writer, and an Engineer / Scientist / Thinker….A kindred spirit so to speak. I think we would have become friends. Vty Jack.
Hi Jack, Great to meet you – yes sorry we never got to meet in person in Pittsburgh. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org if you ever feel like dropping me a line