8 9/16’’x 10 13/16’’ (21.8 x 27.5cm) - (17 1/4’’x19 11/16’’ - 43.8 x 50 cm framed)
This still life is presented in an exceptional Florentine frame from the first half of the 17th century. Executed in sgraffito, it is decorated with floral scrolls on a gold background with four fleur-de-lis in the corners.
Provenance: Galerie Heim, Paris (France) – sold in August 1961
Riechers Collection (France)
Fred G. Meier, art historian, confirmed with the following comment, after a photographic examination of the work, that it belongs to the studio of Georg Flegel: "It is a work of good quality, but in my opinion the handling is somewhat different from that of Flegel himself. This painting is handled quite softly, Flegel generally is more defined in his modelling and brushstrokes. The painting can be connected with Flegel, however, as some motifs appear almost identically in one of his works: both the handle of the knife (which is quite unusual in type) and the apple can be found in a still life in the Pommersches Landesmuseum, Greifswald (last image enclosed, cat. no. 35 in the monograph by A.-D. Ketelsen-Volkhardt, 2003), which also includes a cut herring and an onion. In view of these similarities, it is likely that the painting originated in Flegel’s studio, perhaps with some assistance of the master. A date of origin around 1630, as Ketelsen suggested for the Greifswald still life, also seems likely for this painting, in my view."
Georg Flegel, one of the first still life painters in Germany, here presents us with a meticulous composition in which the sumptuousness of a gilded cup contrasts with the modesty of the meal: a herring accompanied by three slices of bread, an onion and an apple. The influence of the Reformed faith in Flegel's work means that a double interpretation for this still life is feasible: that of a commemoration of the Last Supper, but also a moralizing, "emblematic" message.
1. Georg Flegel, a pioneering painter
Georg Flegel was born in Olmütz (Olomouc) in Moravia (in the present Czech Republic), probably into a family of the Reformed faith. His youth is not well known. Around 1580 he became the assistant of Lucas van Valckenborch (1535 - 1597), who he may have met in Linz and with whom he moved to Frankfurt, a city where their presence is attested from 1593 onwards. Together they painted large compositions depicting people (who were painted by Van Valckenborch) often seated in front of opulent tables or market stalls (painted by Flegel). This collaboration lasted until the death of Lucas van Valckenborch in 1597. Flegel remained in Frankfurt, specializing in still lifes, and practiced there for the rest of his life. He died in 1638 from the plague that arrived in Frankfurt around 1635/1636 and killed a quarter of the city's population.
Flegel's work is still poorly known and Kurt Wettengl counted only 65 still lifes by the painter in 1993 (a number raised to 80 by Anne-Dore Ketelsen-Volhardt in her monograph on the painter). While some of the later works are signed, the others are sometimes monogrammed, sometimes not. In his book on Flegel published in 1790 H. S. Hüsgen stated that Flegel reserved his monogram for the most expensive works (sold between 55 and 60 Thalers), and that there were two other categories of works: less sophisticated works without a monogram sold for 15 to 22 Thalers, and finally more basic works sold for 6 to 8 Thalers. In addition to his still lifes, Flegel painted remarkable watercolours at the end of his life.
Flegel had probably only a small studio, for only the painter Jacob Marrel (1613/1614 - 1681) and his two sons Friedrich (1596/1597-1616) and Jacob (1602-1623) have been reported as his pupils.
Sebastien Stoskopff (1597 - 1657), who in turn was one of the pioneers of still life painting in Alsace, was greatly influenced by Flegel's compositions, although it is not possible to say with certainty whether he actually came to meet the painter in Frankfurt.
2. Description of the artwork
The painter presents us with a frugal meal: a herring, placed on a wooden plate next to slices of bread and a knife with an elaborate handle, a whole onion, intended to be eaten with the herring, a glass of white wine in a sumptuous goblet of vermeil and finally, probably as a dessert, an apple.
The composition is typical of Flegel's still lifes, which are characterized by the realism of the representation of the objects and the singularity of their staging. This realism in the meticulous representation of objects links Flegel's art to the pictorial tradition of the Northern European schools.
Adopting a slightly overhanging point of view, the painter presents us here with a meticulous arrangement of these different elements which, presented on a neutral-coloured plane, are highlighted by the black background of the composition.
The characteristic handle of the knife can be found in the still life in the Greifswald Museum and allows us to date this panel to around 1630. The knife has a crowned letter R on the blade, the interpretation of which is difficult. The most likely hypothesis is that this letter is just its mark of origin.
3. A commemoration of the Last Supper
Beyond the representation of this frugal meal, the painter invites us to a truly religious meditation. Bread and wine, which appear in the vast majority of Flegel's works, are in fact the food used by Christ during the last meal shared with his disciples and these still lifes can therefore be read as commemorations of the Last Supper ("Erinnerung an das Abendmahl").
The fish was also used during the third and fourth centuries as a Eucharistic symbol, the Greek name of the fish ICHTUS being read as an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour. Furthermore, and this is particularly clear in this still life, the fish has no eyelids and does not close its eyes, thus evoking the Christians who await the return of the risen Christ in glory. It is interesting in this regard to emphasize the position of the fish's eye in the vertical middle of the composition, as if to capture our attention.
This symbolism of bread and wine is completed by the apple, a reminder of the original sin that is redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ, while the tendril that surrounds the foot of the wine goblet evokes the tempting serpent in the earthly paradise.
It should be emphasized that the symbolism used by Flegel must be understood in the spirit of reform, which rejects transubstantiation, that is, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. The representation of the bread and wine is only a reference to the Scriptures to open the way for a spiritual meditation, and should in no way be interpreted as the representation of the Eucharistic substances. We find these elements in a number of still lifes that can also be interpreted as commemorations of the Last Supper.
4. A moralizing dimension
In her book on Flegel , Anne-Dore Ketelsin-Volkhard invites us to see in the representation of these frugal and solitary meals, a kind of emblem that conveys a moralizing message.
This message, of course inspired by the spirit of the Reformation, goes beyond the representation of objects, and calls us to emancipate ourselves from material goods.
5. Provenance and framing
Our painting was considered as an entirely autograph work by Flegel when it was sold by the Galerie Heim to still life collectors Jean (1898 - 1974) and Yvonne (1905-1986) Riechers. The former came from a family of industrialists specializing in lace and ran a world-renowned company based in Calais. It should be noted that the Riechers owned another still life by Flegel, a Still Life with Wine Pitcher, Breadcrumb and Small Fishes , which was acquired by the Louvre Museum in 1981 and is the only painting by Flegel held by the Louvre Museum.
Our painting has been lavishly framed by the Galerie Heim: a 17th century Florentine frame, decorated with floral scrolls and fleur-de-lis on a gold background, from the Maison Lebrun. The visual alliance between the decorative richness of the frame and the exuberance of the vermeil goblet represented in the painting seems remarkable to us, even if it distracts a little from the emblematic message that the painter wanted to convey.
Main bibliographic elements:
Kurt Wettengl Georg Flegel 1566-1638 Stilleben - Verlag Gerd Hatje Stuttgart - 1993
Anne-Dore Ketelsen-Volhardt Georg Flegel 1566-1638 - Deutscher Kunstverlag - 2003
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