Helping a Still Life Come Alive

A Renaissance still life offers so much more than first meets the eye, especially when a blossoming bouquet is the focal point. A perfect example is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Still Life with Flowers in a Vase, a 1617 painting by Flemish-born Dutch painter Christoffel van den Berghe.

Still Life with Flowers, 1617, by Christoffel van den Berghe (Dutch, c. 1590 – c. 1642) Cat. 648

The oil-on-copper painting, which hangs in Gallery 362 on the third floor, is accompanied by a label filled with insights into the marvelous flowers. It explains how the artist “collected an impossible bouquet of blooms that open at different times of the year, demonstrating that he could surpass the abilities of nature. Each flower is given equal illumination, but the most prominent are three striped tulips, which were especially prized in early seventeenth-century Holland.”

The label also states that painters in the Dutch town of Middleburg specialized in this type of flower still life, “among the most expensive kind of paintings available in the Dutch republic.” It even describes the two cups: “kraak porcelain imported from China.“

But what of those shells and insects in Still Life with Flowers in a Vase? For the answers, I asked experts at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, just down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from the PMA.

The shells in the painting were likely imported from the Dutch East Indies.

Malacologist Paul Callomon says the three shells to the right of the vase are “Conus mustelinus, [the ermine cone], Conus generalis [the general cone], and a land snail, probably Amphidromus, though drawn too large.” Callomon noted that “all three would have been expensive in Europe in the seventeenth century; they may have come from Ambon, in the Dutch East Indies.”

There’s also more than meets the eye to the butterflies in the painting. Jason Weintraub, an entomologist for the Academy of Natural Sciences, says: “Four of the butterflies depicted are all very common species that would be found in the Netherlands, and none would have any special significance for an artist, other than that they would be familiar.”

The peacock butterfly
The cabbage white
The grayling
The painted lady

He identified the butterflies as: Inachis io, aka the peacock butterfly; Pieris rapae, or the cabbage white—“the most common butterfly in Philadelphia;” Hipparchia semele, or the grayling; and Vanessa cardui, known as the painted lady, a “cosmopolitan species found in Philadelphia as well as the Netherlands, and the most widespread butterfly species on our planet.”

As for what the butterflies represent, Jennifer Thompson, the Gloria and Jack Drosdick Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, has a theory. “I suspect their presence has much to do with showing off the artist’s skill in capturing something fleeting that might have tiny translucent wings or dozens of small tentacles,”’ she says. “Even though the insects are almost always native to the Netherlands, there is a preciousness to being able to study them alongside shell specimens and prized blooms.”

Another reason, she says, is that “the butterflies, caterpillars, or bees make a still life look alive and create an illusion that the artist has captured a moment in time.”

Thompson can also explain why Van den Berghe painted on copper: “Copper offers a smooth surface and lends itself to fine details. It is also durable—it won’t degrade or rot like canvas, and temperature fluctuations do not cause it to swell or contract like wood.”

And this is only one of the reasons this painting is timeless and worth seeing in person.

By Jim Wright, author of The Real James Bond, the story of the Academy of Natural Sciences ornithologist whose identity was stolen by British author Ian Fleming for his 007. Jim often writes about nature.

This story originally was published on PMA Stories. All images from the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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