Frans Snyders's "Still Life with Fruit and Small Game"
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
35 ½ x 44 1/8 in. (90.2 x 112.1 cm.)
Oscar Winterbottom, Horton Hall, Northamptonshire, and by descent; By whom sold London, Christie’s, 8 July 2005, lot 50. Johnny van Haeften, London; By whom sold to The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Hella Robels, Frans Snyders: Stilleben—und Tiermaler 1579—1657, Munich, 1989.
Susan Koslow, Frans Snyders: The Noble Estate. Seventeenth—Century Still –Life and Animal Painting in the Southern Netherlands, forward Walter A. Liedtke, Antwerp, 1995.
Susan Koslow, "Frans Snyders's Still Life with Small Game, " in Johnny van Haeften, Dutch and Flemish Old Master Paintings, London, December, 2005, No. 26. (The following text is excerpted from this catalog with emendations.)
Fruit and game culled from a manor’s gardens, fields, and forests are casually disposed on a table extending forwards to the picture plane.(1) The motifs fill the picture space and appear to extend even beyond its limits, a typical compositional ploy used by Frans Snyders to indicate spatial extension beyond the confines of the picture itself. The wall, a foil for the still life, is scumbled with warm tones, except on the far right where a dark shadow hints at a deep recess. The table is covered with a vivid red cloth, a color associated with the highest social rank, and possibly dyed with cochineal, the New World dyestuff that had recently come into use. The picture’s principal motif, a circular wicker basket loaded with grapes, is centrally placed, and subordinate elements are positioned to left and right. Game birds, a brace of partridge, a pheasant, and a woodcock, animals that a seignor alone was privileged to hunt, are heaped on the right in abundant profusion. Finches, too, add to the colorful mix; aligned in a row, they are inserted in the cleft of a stick that juts out over the table’s edge. With the eye of a scientist, Snyders insists on nature’s facts. Each feature is recorded accurately but never pedantically, be it the eye of a bird, its beak, distinctive patterns of plumage or the bird’s various colors and form. This reportorial exactitude emphasizes nature’s variety but does not fail to insist on its beauty too. Even in death the creatures are not disfigured or rigid; seemingly pliant, they appear animate but slumbering.
To the left of the basket, counterbalancing the birds, are precious tableware, a gilt tazza probably of Flemish origin and an exotic porcelain bowl in the wanli style. Each object holds fruit: the tazza, luscious black figs, some so ripe that their skins have split to reveal their succulent flesh, while the fragile bowl holds a generous bunch of grapes whose weight has tipped it, spilling grapes onto the cloth. This cluster, like the grapes in the wicker basket, has not been trimmed to remove branches or leaves, a feature that underscores the immediacy of provisioning: the figs have just been plucked and the grapes harvested from the vineyard. The lord or seignor, unlike a commoner, does not purchase foodstuffs, for his lands ensure a fresh supply of victuals daily.
At least four kinds of grapes are arranged in the basket. The most plentiful is a radiant light-toned green variety, small and spherical, which grows in compact clusters, as do the pinkish ones in their midst. As if intent on unifying these hues, Snyders depicts large pendant grapes, the same variety as those in the Chinese bowl; these are green and red and even blue, depending on whether they are fully illuminated or in shadow. Dark blue-purplish grapes play a minor role. Only one bunch is on the basket’s left; design accounts for its presence: formally, it functions as a tonal and color bridge to the proximate/nearby figs. Snyders is never formulaic; each grape has a distinct identity, thanks to the painter’s predilection for individuation effected by means of subtle inflections of color and facture and by shape. Some grapes appear translucent, others opaque; all are flawless, ripe to be squeezed to expell sweet liquid. Grapes, a symbol of fertility, were not eaten raw in the seventeenth century, but were used in cooking sauces, such as verjuice, as well as dried (raisins), and most importantly for making wine.
Leafy branches are especially important in this picture. Projecting from the tight mass of grapes, they add a lively decorative element, and, equally important, dimensional ambient space. The arrangement of the undulant foliage, though seemingly improvisational, is calculated to create depth and movement; moreover, the leaves contribute to the picture’s pleasing warm palette. Brown and yellow but with green still in evidence, the leaves allude to autumn, the season when grapes and figs are harvested. The strong beam of warm light that falls from above sets the leaves’ surfaces aglow, radiates through them, and with calligraphic finesse outlines their contours.
Baskets of fruit abound in Snyders’s work, many filled with diverse varieties, but there are also a considerable number whose contents are confined to grapes. These appear in large market and larder scenes with and without figures as well as in smaller pieces depicting only fruit and small game. As early as 1603, Snyders was already fashioning scenes with game and baskets of grapes, but none resembles the Winterbottom Still Life more closely than a picture owned by the Archdukes. It’s date is uncertain, but as it is depicted in Jan Breughel the Elders’ Allegory of Sight (Prado) of ca 1617.(2) Breughel’s cabinet piece accurately portrays a representative sample of the collection of the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands. Snyders’s Still Life is at the lower right corner. It is likely that the archdukes’ picture kindled a desire for similar pieces, even in the 1630s, the putative date for the Winterbottom Still Life. In its own day, the picture was so desirable that it spawned variant copies; the best known is the canvas in the North Carolina Museum of Art, in Raleigh.(3) That the Winterbottom picture is the original is attested by pentimenti, the most visible, revisions made to the leaf projecting on the right. These changes indicate Snyders’s undogmatic approach and the sureness of his touch. In the very course of painting he did not feel inhibited and exercised freedom to improve his original design. A witty sensibility is apparent too: balanced atop all the grapes at the mound’s apex is a single grape. Not conspicuous, it shows Snyder’s delight in his subject matter, a delight that melds with his masterful technical prowess. It is no wonder that Rubens found him to be a congenial partner, perfectly suited to the master’s expansive rhetorical vision.
Frans Snyders was born in Antwerp in 1579 and died there in 1657, at the venerable age of seventy-eight. During his lengthy career, he established a national and international reputation in two emergent genres, still life and animal imagery; indeed, he was instrumental in fashioning these subjects to suit seventeenth-century taste. His thematic and formal inventions became classic, exercising a profound influence well into the nineteenth century. During his lifetime, his paintings were avidly sought by the great. King Philip IV of Spain (who decorated his private dining chamber with no less than four) , the Spanish grandee the marquis of Leganés, owner of about 60 Snyders), the diplomat abbot Scaglia, the duke of Buckingham, favorite of King James I, and ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton, Viscount Dorchester, among others, vied for his work. So, too, did lesser nobles, Habsburg government officials and wealthy commoners who aspired to the aristocracy. The Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, sovereigns of the Spanish Netherlands (1599-1621) also collected his paintings. One factor that made Snyders’s work so desirable was its reification of the ideals and practices of early modern European nobility. In a society still fundamentally feudal, nobility and lordship, with their attendant privileges, were the ultimate measure of status. Thus, on the one hand, Snyders’s work is retrospective, recalling the conservative order of the past, even evoking chivalric customs in hunt scenes and still lifes, while, on the other hand, the paintings manifest contemporary intellectual trends in science and humanism. Though seemingly apolitical, Snyders’s pictures espouse an eirenic viewpoint: peace secures rural abundance and commercial wealth, and with peace the arts and sciences flourish. Whilst Snyders’s work is essentially secular, spiritual and moral issues are not ignored. To be counted among these is the notion that the stewardship of God’s Creation is entrusted to man. This responsibility is great indeed, for all nature must be cared for and wisely managed; to despoil or abuse nature is to desecrate Creation. Snyders presents nature’s plenitude for the viewer to enjoy but an unspoken admonition cautions moderation to avoid the sins of gluttony, lasciviousness, and vainglory.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the Winterbottom Still Life has its roots in the xenion of classical culture. According to the Roman author Vitruvius, ancient Greeks depicted foodstuffs and titled such scenes xenia or “gifts of hospitality” to recall the custom of hospitality provided to overnight guests in the form of fresh and cooked foods. Greek xenia pictures do not survive but thanks to Roman artists, numerous frescoes and mosaics give a fair idea of what they looked like. Especially popular in Roman residences were mosaic floors with still lifes. These signified hospitality to the guest who entered the triclinium or dining room. Among the motifs are baskets of grapes, figs, and game birds. When excavations in Italy in the sixteenth century brought these ancient works to light, the xenion was refashioned by Snyders in the early seventeenth century into the seignorial fruit piece, in keeping with the culture of early modern Europe. Yet, both Snyders and members of his audience, would have recognized the filiation with the past and “read” the picture with this knowledge in mind, seeing in them offerings of hospitality.
Frans Snyders’s father was a prosperous inn-keeper and wine merchant who also dealt in picture frames, while his mother’s relatives reputedly were painters. At fourteen, in 1595, he was apprenticed to the painter Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the eldest son of the renowned Pieter Bruegel and at twenty-three, in 1602, Snyders became a master in the St. Luke Guild. Subsequently, he may have travelled to Prague with his master’s younger brother Jan Brueghel the Elder, but conclusive documentation is lacking for this journey. However, an Italian sojourn is attested by numerous letters that place Snyders first in Rome, then in Milan. There, at the request of Jan Breughel, he was offered hospitality by Cardinal Borromeo, a munificent patron of the arts. Snyders returned to Antwerp by July 1609, four months after a twelve year’s truce had been concluded which brought to an end decades-long warfare in the Low Countries. This truce ushered in an era of peace and prosperity in the southern Netherlands: the Habsburg court at Brussels became a diplomatic and cultural center; Antwerp resumed its former status as an art capital with plentiful workshops supplying paintings of the highest quality and diversity as well as more modest pieces for export to the Iberian peninsula, New Spain, and other lands. Indeed, throughout the southern provinces a new dynamism was manifest as construction and manufacture surged. It is within this context that Snyders’s career should be viewed.
After his return to Antwerp, Snyders established a shop and by year’s end enrolled his first apprentice, one of only three in his entire career. Apparently he did not require assistance from students to sustain substantial output; demand was met largely with the aid of kin and an occasional younger master, such as Jan Fyt. When Snyders married Margriete de Vos in 1611, he became allied to a family of outstanding artists. His brother-in law, Cornelis, painted figures, while still life and animals were Paul’s specialty. Moreover, Snyders’s younger siblings were artists, and a nephew is mentioned as a junior partner in one of Snyders’s four testaments. However, like most Antwerp artists he teamed up with other painters, Anthony van Dyck for one, but most importantly Peter Paul Rubens. They worked together oftentimes, beginning in 1609 and ending in 1640, when Rubens died. Rubens reserved animal and still-life components for Snyders, but it should be stressed that Snyders did not paint all animals or still-life motifs in Rubens’s paintings. Their collaboration also included major decorative projects, such as a royal hunting lodge outside Madrid, the Torre de la Parada. Snyders was entrusted in 1636 with some 60 hunt and animal fables while Rubens’s share consisted of an Ovidian cycle of almost equal number. Doubtlessly contributing to their collaborative success was a friendship based on a communality of interests, values, and practices. This friendship is attested by Snyders witnessing Rubens’s testament and appraising the master’s estate.
1610—1620 were crucial years for Snyders. In that decade he achieved fame and financial success shown by his purchase, in 1620, of the house aptly named De Fortuyne, on the exclusive Keizerstraet. The property was desirable for many reasons, not least because it was adjacent to the residence of Antwerp’s mayor, who, besides excercising considerable political power, was a learned humanist and art lover. Snyders witnessed the codicil to the mayor’s testament, in 1640, which once again indicates the trust he inspired among his contemporaries. The year before his acquisition of De Fortuyne, Snyders had been inducted into the exclusive Brotherhood of the Romanists, whose most important requirement was a residency in Italy. Although Snyders did not undertake further ultramontane journeys, eleven passports are registered in an Antwerp municipal ledger between 1635—and 1648 for trips to “the enemy territory,” that is, The United Provinces. Further documentation is lacking concerning these voyages, but it is possible that Snyders sold work directly to the Dutch.
In 1647, Margriete de Vos, his wife of thirty-six years died. She was interred in a local Franciscan church, the Minderbroeders, decorated with major altarpieces by Rubens and van Dyck. Ten years later Frans Snyders was laid to rest beside her. Since the marriage was without issue, the couple’s considerable wealth— the estate was worth about 50,000 guilders-- was distributed among his relatives, with provisions for alms and monies for the guild of St. Luke.
Regretably, a notarial inventory, which would have provided a detailed, room by room list of the contents of Snyders's house is lacking. Thus, though it is likely that he possessed books, scientific specimens and possibly small-scale animal sculptures, no evidence confims their existence. Other documents, however, indicate that he owned a valuable art collection with pictures by Rubens and van Dyck, and works in all genres by Flemish and Dutch painters. He seems to have been partial to sixteenth-century Venetians, such as Titian, and owned a representative selection of early sixteenth-century Flemish masters and a Dürer. These were displayed in “the room of antiques.” Prints also formed a significant part of his collection. Given the social circles Snyders frequented, it is not surprising that he possesed examples of classical art. Two such casts are documented, a Hercules and a Marcus Aurelius. The latter suggests familiarity with the tenets of Neostoicism, a philosophy widely followed among Europe’s educated class and its political elite; moreover, it was a lodestone for Rubens’s moral compass. While it might be supposed that Snyders, who is not known to have attended a Latin school, would have little knowledge of philosophy, that does not appear to be the case. Besides Neostoicism, he was versed in Pythagorean and Neo-Pythagorean arguments advocating vegetarianism. This is especially important for “reading” Snyders’s still lifes. It is unlikely that he followed a vegetarian diet himself, but there is no question that he was familiar with its moral rationale, since together with Rubens he painted an exceptionally large picture showing Pythagoras lecturing on vegetarianism. Snyders’s still lifes that juxtapose game and produce give a viewer disposed to Pythagorean philosophy a prompt to meditate on its moral implications. Of course this would not exclude other readings, where the artfulness of nature is contrasted with the artifice of man’s art.
1. For the provenance of related pictures, see Robels, pp. 270—1; for biographical information, consult both Robels and Koslow; otherwise see Koslow for ideas advanced here and in forthcoming studies.
2. Koslow, p. 19.
3. Robels, pp. 270—1; Flemish paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America, selected by Guy C. Bauman and Walter A. Liedtke, Antwerp, 1992, pp. 300-1, entry by Paul Huvenne.