Hieronymus Galle the Elder was born in Antwerp where in 1636, at the age of eleven, he became a pupil of the obscure painter Abraham Hack, who died a few years later. Galle became a master in the local guild in 1645; it is not known by whom he was trained after Hack’s death. In 1661 he travelled to Rome, where he stayed for about a year before returning to Antwerp, where he was last recorded in 1679. His death date is unknown. Theoretically, he could be identical with the painter of the same name who entered the Brussels painters’ guild in 1681, but more likely that painter was his nephew, Hieronymus Galle the Younger, who was registered as a pupil in the Antwerp guild in 1673/74. Hieronymus Galle the Elder, already in his early years, usually signed his first name as ‘Hieronimo’ (often abbreviated to ‘Hier.’), apparently after his Italian sojourn occasionally changing to an Italianized form ‘Gironimo’, or briefly, ‘Gier.’. Little is known about Hieronymus Galle the Elder’s life. He appears to have restricted himself to painting still lifes, but within that area he painted a range of subjects, of which flowers appear to have been his favourite subject. Dated works by Galle are known from 1650 to 1667 and they show a distinct development from works that bear witness of an inspiration from paintings by such artists as Jan Brueghel and Daniel Seghers, towards paintings that were clearly inspired by Italian and Italianate examples. Many paintings by Galle must have been bereaved of their original signatures at some point in time, in order for them to be passed off under better-known names, which their quality would allow. Such a work by Galle in the Royal Museum in Brussels was long catalogued as by Daniel Seghers, due to its overpainted signature.
After flowers, Hieronymus Galle’s second favoured subject was the still life of game, of which the present pair are excellent examples. Galle’s earlier works, up to the mid-1650s, appear to be exclusively flower paintings, both bouquets in vases and cartouche still lifes. A combined still life of fruit and flowers in the Národní Galerie in Olomouc, Czech Republic, was found to be signed by Galle and dated 1658. Galle’s Italian sojourn clearly had a strong impact on his style. Not only did he subsequently occasionally Italianize his signature, he also painted several still lifes that were obviously inspired by works he must have seen there by such artists as Michelangelo de Campidoglio and Abraham Brueghel. Also, his palette became more colourful. Among these Italian-inspired works is an impressive fruit piece signed GIROLIMO GALLE. Another still life of fruit, vegetables and flowers again is signed with his ‘traditional’ signature ‘HIERONIMO GALLE ƒ’.
A large pair of still lifes of game, one of which predominantly of birds, clearly shows the Italian impact on Galle’s style and choice of subjects. Reportedly, this pair is dated 1660, but unless Galle went to Italy earlier than 1661, this seems slightly too early. A pair of signed still lifes of game that most probably originated after Galle’s return to Antwerp shows a very similar, rather meticulous, treatment of the birds and other details as in the pair discussed here. Very close in handling is also a signed upright still life of dead birds that was on the Italian art market in 1968. An unsigned larger still life of game with a dog and a bust before a landscape background connects closely in its representation of the animals with the previous three works. Galle paid much attention to characterizing and rendering the details of the fleece and feathers of his subjects, as well as to the vivid colours of the birds. The various birds he depicted can be identified quite easily. The latter painting also includes a bunch of flowers that connects seamlessly with Galle’s later flower paintings. The birds in the two still lifes discussed here are virtually identical in their handling with those in the previous group of still lifes of game and many species are the same. There can be no doubt, in my mind, that they were painted by the same hand.
Hieronymus Galle dated only relatively few of his paintings, but it appears to be possible to suggest a date for this pair of still lifes of dead birds. They clearly form part of the artist’s production after his travels to Italy and would appear to have been done within a decade of this journey. The palette and detailed approach suggest that they were executed before the end of the 1660s. In his flower paintings from this period, Galle also shows a preference for warm red colours, strong blue and a purplish hue, all of which are manifest in this pair and can be observed in several floral bouquets by the artist, one of which is dated 1667.
If the painter intended any symbolism in this pair, it is certainly that of vanitas, the notion that life is short and that worldly beauty is only temporal. But most of all he seems to have relished in the realistic rendering of the varied coats of feathers of his subjects, which the viewer senses he can almost touch and feel.
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