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. Two European goldfinches, one of which stands alertly on the handle of the basket, further enliven the scene. Frogs by a pool of water in the lower left, snails, caterpillars, and lizards (one of which is dead and has attracted a horde of ants) further enrich this woodland scene.
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 Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606 - 1684), with whom Mignon studied in Utrecht. A particularly close prototype, Ruins with Fruit and Bird’s Nest [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Jan Davidsz de Heem, Ruins with Fruit and Bird’s Nest, late 1660s, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut, must have been executed by De Heem during the late 1660s, at a time when Mignon presumably was active in the master’s studio. This still life from Dresden, likewise set in a grotto, includes so many of the same elements—luscious fruit, gnarled tree, bird’s nest and eggs, live and dead animals, all drawn together by the rhythms of long stalks of wheat—that one wonders whether Mignon had an active hand in its execution. In any event, from this thematic basis, Mignon executed a number of related works that became progressively more decorative and mannered as a result of his luminous colors and crisp articulation of forms. One composition in Budapest is particularly close in concept, the basic difference being that a selection of flowers instead of fruit serves as the primary still-life motif.
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. He also painted variants and multiple versions of his most successful works. At least three other versions of the Gallery’s painting exist: a signed version [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Abraham Mignon, Still Life with Fruit, Fish and a Bird's Nest, c. 1675, oil on canvas, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Photo © Bayer&Mitko - ARTOTHEK in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich; an unsigned version in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg; and an unsigned version sold on the New York art market (Sotheby’s, January 12, 1989, no. 187).
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 Infrared ReflectographyA 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. [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Infrared reflectogram, Abraham Mignon, Still Life with Fruit, Fish, and a Nest, c. 1675, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. John Heinz III, 1989.23.1. Evidence of a grid pattern in the UnderdrawingA drawing executed on a ground before paint is applied. indicates that Mignon transferred the composition from another source, probably a preparatory drawing. Although he had various students who may well have made replicas, and his paintings were also reputed to have been copied after his death, the quality of this version is so high that one must assume Mignon was primarily responsible for its execution. Not only is the brushwork vigorous throughout, the range of textures created, from the soft skin of the peaches to the crisply articulated forms of the grains of wheat, are consistent with those found in Mignon’s autograph works. The Gallery’s painting, moreover, is not an exact replica of the Munich version; slight variations exist in the positions of the frog and the dead lizard in the foreground relative to the other still-life elements.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014