Flowers and a watch

… not to mention insects. And mortality.

From Hana Filip on Facebook, this extraordinary still life by 17th-century artist Abraham Mignon:

(#1) Still Life with Flowers and a Watch (c. 1660 – c. 1679) — Hana adds: “and a snail, a caterpillar, a thingy with big wings, butterflies …”

Still lifes are almost never just attractive arrangements of objects, but resonate with sociocultural meanings of all sorts; they’re about us. This Mignon, especially so.

From Wikipedia:

Abraham Mignon or Minjon (21 June 1640 – 27 March 1679), was a still life painter. He is known for his flower pieces, still lifes with fruit, still lifes in forests or grottoes, still lifes of game and fish as well as his garland paintings. His works are influenced by those of Jan Davidszoon de Heem and Jacob Marrel.

After commencing his artistic training in his native Germany, he moved to the Dutch Republic where he was active in Utrecht during the last part of his short life.

… Mignon was a specialist still life painter whose subjects ranged from flowers, fruit, forest still lifes, game pieces, garland paintings, fish still lifes and insect pieces. His best-known works are his elaborate compositions of flowers and fruits arranged in niches or on stone ledges, or displayed in grottos or amidst ruins. As Mignon never dated his compositions it has been notoriously difficult to establish a chronology for his work. On stylistic grounds it is assumed that his more elaborate still lifes of flowers, characterised by clear colours, sharp focus and the use of a dark background, are Mignon’s distillation of de Heem’s style.

… In the Still life with flowers and a watch (Rijksmuseum) the inclusion of a watch and wilting flowers clearly emphasizes the vanitas symbolism of time destroying everything.

And then the Wikipedia entry on still lifes, with a section on vanitas symbolism:

A still life (plural: still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, shells, etc.) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, etc.).

… Still life, as a particular genre, began with Netherlandish painting of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the English term still life derives from the Dutch word stilleven. Early still-life paintings, particularly before 1700, often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted. Later still-life works are produced with a variety of media and technology, such as found objects, photography, computer graphics, as well as video and sound.

… A special genre of still life was the so-called pronkstilleven (Dutch for ‘ostentatious still life’). This style of ornate still-life painting was developed in the 1640s in Antwerp by Flemish artists such as Frans Snyders and Adriaen van Utrecht. They painted still lifes that emphasized abundance by depicting a diversity of objects, fruits, flowers and dead game, often together with living people and animals. The style was soon adopted by artists from the Dutch Republic.

Especially popular in this period were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, books, statuettes, vases, coins, jewelry, paintings, musical and scientific instruments, military insignia, fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life’s impermanence. Additionally, a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Often some of the fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade to emphasize the same point.

In general, the objects in these still lifes are those of special interest to people in the surrounding culture. The fruits are not just biological fruits (acorns, osage oranges, maple samaras, etc.), but culinary fruits, for human consumption, usually varieties especially bred for their size or taste. The flowers are rarely wildflowers, but highly cultivated hybrids bred for their size and beauty. Dead creatures aren’t just random carcasses (rats, skunks, crows, sparrows, etc.), but game animals (especially rabbits) and birds (pheasants, quail, etc.). And so on.

(Then there are snails, insects, and the like, which appear to be bearers of individual meanings: persistent toil, brevity of life, and the like.)

Intimations of mortality. Above, the vanitas symbolism in still lifes. In  a different cultural genre, the sundial as a monitory symbol. As in sundials (reported from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere) with the Scots inscription Tak’ tent of time ere time be tint ‘Take thought of time before time is ended’ (Never put things off until another time, for another time may never come). As here:

(#2) In the gardens of Harmony House (in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders), a property of the National Trust for Scotland

More Mignon. Two more.

(#3) A Bird’s Nest in a Fruit Basket (Dutch: Vogelnest in een mand met vruchten; German: Ein Vogelnest im Fruchtkorb), c. 1665 – c. 1679 (in Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden)

(#4) A fringed red poppy, a tulip, an iris, roses, poppies and other flowers with insects in a glass vase on a stone ledge (this appears to be a description, rather than a title) — sold by Christie’s in 2019 for $711,000

Still life postings on this blog. A list of highlights (excluding mentions in passing):

on 7/28/12 in “The Mrowr and The Whine”: a Gary Larson comic still life Bottle, Apple, Book, and Bowl of Wiener Dogs

on 6/4/13 in “Albert York”: York’s still lifes

on 11/8/14 in “Variation on a theme, with grapes”: Severin Roesen and his fruit and flower still lifes

on 12/5/16 in “Wayne Thiebaud”: among his works, “still lifes of gumball machines and voluptuous bakery cakes”

on 5/26/17 in “Food art: still lifes”

on 8/15/17 in “July 24th, p. 9: two artists”: still life photographs of food by Sandy Skoglund

on 10/11/18 in “Contractualism, the sitcom!”: Giorgio Morandi and his still lifes

on 11/30/18 in “Green flowers”: flower arrangements vs. still lifes

on 12/12/18 in “Three artists”: Odilon Redon floral still lifes

on 4/6/19 in “The trail mixer”: #2 trail mix viewed as “Still Life in Fruit and Nuts”



One Response to “Flowers and a watch”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I find it interesting that the French term for “still life” is nature morte (“dead nature”). Not sure what’s behind the shift in emphasis from life to death.

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