The forest backdrop in this work—so dark that it nearly conceals a stone archway—emphasizes Abraham Mignon’s expressive use of light, which imparts a richness to his colors and forms. The fishing rod, bait box, and bundle of freshly caught fish next to the wicker basket overflowing with fruit and vegetables all evoke the bounty of the water and the land. The assembled objects furthermore form an allegory on the cycles of life. The eggs in the bird’s nest presage birth; the open blossoms and ripe fruits suggest maturity; and the gnarled tree stump denotes old age. Ultimately, the inevitability of death is conveyed by the ants eating the fish and a dead salamander in the foreground. The wheat stalks and grapes offer salvation by symbolizing Jesus' blessing of bread and wine at the Last Supper.
Mignon’s stunning array of textures certainly validates an early biographer’s observation that the artist was "especially diligent." After training in his native Germany, Mignon moved to Utrecht where he probably worked in the studio of Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–1684), who resided in Utrecht from 1667 to 1672, before returning to Antwerp. Mignon consequently adopted De Heem's "Flemish" taste for rich color and complex design.
The celebration of the richness and fertility of the land is a theme that reappears in different forms throughout the seventeenth century, whether in still-life, landscape, or mythological scenes. This work, painted in the mid-1670s, is an evocative image of abundance in which the fruits of the water are depicted along with the fruits of the land. The catch of the day, still hanging from hooks attached to lines that drape over the edge of the bait box, glistens in the subdued light of this deeply recessed scene. The fishing pole and its case can be seen resting on the fruit piled in the wicker basket. A great tit, perched on a branch of a craggy, moss-covered tree, watches over her nest with its four eggs nestled in the branches of a hibiscus plant.
Dr. Stoors L. Olson, curator at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, has kindly identified the birds and the fish (perch, pike, and roach) in this painting. The speckled eggs in the nest are those of a great tit and not of a goldfinch (which are bluish).
While the components of this painting belong to an allegorical tradition of abundance, they also seem to represent various stages in the cycle of life. The bird’s eggs stand for birth; ripe fruit and blossoming flowers indicate maturity; old age is included in the guise of the gnarled tree; and the fish and the corpse of the lizard represent death. Religious concepts further complement these dual aspects of abundance and the cycles of life. The wheat and grapes, so prominently displayed in this still life, traditionally represent the Eucharist. These varied symbolic associations are fused together in such a way as to create a metaphorically rich image that could be appreciated by the viewer on many levels.
This flowing composition and the complex symbolism contained within it were clearly inspired by the work of
Still Life with Flowers, Fish, and Bird’s Nest, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, inv. no. 3539.
The large number of similarly complex compositions still extant confirms Arnold Houbraken’s statement that Mignon’s paintings were in great demand. Although Houbraken avows that Mignon worked from life, the artist frequently reused motifs, such as the frogs, in various paintings.
Arnold Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 3 vols. (The Hague, 1753) 3:82–83.
Flowers, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, inv. no. 1050.
The signed Munich painting is the prime example of this composition, while the Gallery’s work is most likely an autograph replica. An extensive, vigorously executed underdrawing that outlines the composition has been revealed by
A photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.
A drawing executed on a ground before paint is applied.
Magdalena Kraemer-Noble, Abraham Mignon 1640–1679 (Leigh-on-Sea, 1973), who did not know of this painting, believes that Mignon only signed paintings he actually executed, a position I believe to be too extreme.
See Sam Segal and Liesbeth M. Helmus, Jan Davidsz. de Heem en zijn kring (Utrecht, 1991), 214, 217 n. 2.
The surety of execution is also evident in the x-radiographs [see
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
Private collection, England. private collection, Switzerland; (Peter Tillou Works of Art, Litchfield, Connecticut); purchased May 1986 by Mr. and Mrs. H. John Heinz III, Washington, D.C.; gift 1989 to NGA.
- Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1989, no. 28.
- Obras Maestras de la National Gallery of Art de Washington, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, 1996-1997, unnumbered catalogue, 74-75, color repro.
- Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Dutch Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, 1997, unnumbered brochure.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, 2006-2007, unnumbered brochure, fig. 3.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Ingvar Bergström , eds. Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Washington, 1989: no. 28, color repro. 75.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 174-176, color repro. 177.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. . In Celebration of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Still-Life with Grapes. Exhibition brochure. Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, 2006: fig. 3.
The support, a fine-weight, plain-weave fabric, has a double lining. The tacking margins have been trimmed, but cusping visible along all edges indicates that the original dimensions have been retained. A smooth, thin, white ground was applied overall, followed by a brown imprimatura that was also employed as the background tone. Infrared reflectography at 2.0 to 2.5 microns reveals a grid layout for the transfer of the precise brush-applied underdrawing in the fish and fruits. It also shows changes in the positions of the lizard and the frog. Thin, smooth paint layers were applied in a slow, deliberate manner with some strokes blended wet-into-wet. Leaves painted transparently over the background incorporate the brown layer as a shadow.
A long horizontal tear in the lower right corner transverses the fish, while a smaller area of damage has occurred along the bottom edge at the left. Abrasion is minimal, and losses are confined to the edges and tears. Remnants of a selectively removed aged varnish layer are found over the background, while a fresher semi-matte varnish is present overall. No conservation has been carried out since acquisition.
 Infrared reflectography was performed using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with a K astronomy filter.
Related IconClass Terms
- Roman Catholicism
- fish +used symbolically
- tree +used symbolically
- wheat +used symbolically
- vegetables and fruit
- grapes +used symbolically
- artist +Jan Davidsz. de Heem + influence of
- historical person +Arnold Houbraken + author critic