George Flegel was born in Olmütz (Olomouc), Moravia, the son of a shoemaker, and not being a Roman Catholic, probably moved to Vienna after 1580, when the Counter-Reformation began to take effect in Olmütz. In Vienna he became the assistant of Lucas van Valckenborch the Elder, whom he subsequently followed to Frankfurt, then an important centre for art dealing and publishing. He provided staffage in Valckenborch's paintings of the seasons and portraits, inserting fruit, table utensils and flowers as still-life set pieces. His faithful reproduction of flowers and fruit drew on watercolors by Dürer, still-life painters from the Netherlands living in Frankfurt, and botanical and zoological illustrations by Joris Hoefnagel, Pieter van der Borcht IV and Carolus Clusius. Hoefnagel's illustrations clearly served as the pattern for artists such as Flegel, and led to the earliest pure still lifes being produced in cities such as Prague, Florence, Antwerp and Frankfurt, all of which were centers of scientific study and publishing.
Between around 1600 and 1627-30 Flegel produced 110 watercolors (Kupferstichkabinet, Berlin; 31 destroyed, 1943-4) depicting flowers, fruit and animals, and one Self-portrait (1630; destroyed; see fig. 1 for an engraved portrait of the artist by Sebastian Furck, circa 1600-55, now in the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt, inv. no. c14036). A two-sided painting for a cupboard with trompe-l'oeil still-lifes (National Gallery, Prague) dates from circa 1610. From 1611 he worked on pictures of tables set for meals, for example the Meal with Bunch of Flowers (1630; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and Evening Meal (1637; Historische Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main). Depicted with precise factual accuracy, free brushwork and a sometimes artistic use of lighting effects, these are quite distinct from contemporary Dutch and Flemish still-lifes in their static and unornamented presentation. Of Flegel's many still-lifes, only those between 1635 and 1638 are dated (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne; Städdelische, Kunstinstitute, Frankfurt-am-Main; and National Gallery, Prague). His sons Friedrich (1597-1616) and Jacob (d. 1623) were his pupils (none of their work has survived), as was Jacob Marrel in 1627, who was later to form an important link between the two great early centers of flower painting in Utrecht and Frankfurt and an integral link between the legacy of the Bosschaert dynasty on the one hand and the Flemish tradition of de Heem and Seghers on the other.
Around 1610, the earliest proponents of the table still life emerged in Haarlem and Antwerp, including Nicolaes Gillis (c. 1575-after 1632) and Floris van Dijk (c. 1575-1651), who was actually employed in the workshop of the Cavaliere d'Arpino in Rome circa 1600. Although Caravaggio had long since quarreled with d'Arpino and moved on, van Dijk must have at least come into contact with Caravaggio's work and those of his followers, and one can see in his work (for example, his Still life with cheese in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) that he must have absorbed the lessons of early Roman still-life painting, namely a concentration on larger forms and structure combined with a sense of light and shade with careful modeling of different textures, thus becoming one of the first exponents of Caravaggism in the North. These innovations in Antwerp and Haarlem were quickly absorbed by the Frankfurt-Hannau school, not least because there was close contact between the two cities. Daniel Soreau, for example, who was the teacher of Peter Binoit and Isaak Soreau (d.1619) had come to Frankfurt from Antwerp in 1586. Given these ties it is not surprising that there are similarities between the work of Flegel and Osias Beert, and between Isaak Soreau's bowls of fruit and those of Jacob van Hulsdonck. In Flegel's work one often finds foodstuffs and serving pieces that are particular to Frankfurt, but he increases substantially the repertoire of picture types established in the Netherlands, including inventing so-called 'cupboard' or niche still lifes, with a particular emphasis on trompe l'oeil motifs (for example, his Cupboard picture with flowers, fruit and goblets of circa 1610 in the National Gallery, Prague, which is reminiscent of Roman paintings of wall cupboards). In these paintings, even when they depict the living standards of the well-to-do, they seem to evoke a simple way of life, suggested by simple pleasures. These had the added advantage of being pleasing to God, as suggested by the bread, wine cherries and flowers in the present painting.
In the present work, a masterpiece by Flegel, and probably datable to shortly after 1610, his precise and descriptive manner of composing the floral still life certainly reflects the early seventeenth century interest in the scientific observation and classification of plants and flowers. However, the symbolism of this works goes beyond mere description and may be understood as comprising references to abundance, transience, and the Resurrection of Christ. A single iris crowns the composition and its form illustrates why this flower was considered an emblem of Christ, the Trinity, and redemption. The blue in this instance is also perhaps a reference to heaven. Other species in this bouquet may also be explained in this religious context and the rosemary twigs were considered an emblem of permanence and frequently found among the decorations at burials and weddings. The still life beneath the bouquet has further meaning. Symbolically, cherries were associated with heavenly food, Spring, and the Incarnation of Christ. They were also associated with the Eucharist, as was bread and wine. The clear light that shines through the glass of white wine could also symbolize the light of Christ's Truth and His Divine Incarnation.
Apart from the religious interpretation, this type of bouquet also conveys the idea of transience and is a vanitas. This concept is emphasized by the fragility of the flowers, the red and black striped beetle on the pewter jug, the frieze of dancing peasants, the cracks and chips in the stone niche, and the hungry stag-beetle, possibly a symbol of evil, about to devour the freshly cut bread. A second warning may also be contained in the knife with its ivory and ebony handle prominently displayed at a diagonal in the foreground (although it is presumebly also placed as such to give the painting additional depth). The knife refers to the need for temperance. Even in the midst of such apparent abundance it serves as a reminder of measure and moderation. The stag-beetle in the present work recurs in other paintings throughout Flegel's career, for example in the signed and dated Still life with fish and a stag-beetle (1631) in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; and in the signed and dated Still life of birds (1637), sold at Sotheby's, London, 4 July 1990, lot 15 (£335,500=$580,048).
Irises, tulips, anemone, snake's head fritillaria, lilies, columbine, narcissus, carnations, turk's cap lilies, violets, rosemary, bellflowers, jonquils, a pink rose, a red peony, a chrysanthemum, foxglove, clematis, snapdragons and other flowers in a decorated pewter jug with a black and red striped beetle, on a ledge in a stone niche with a cylindrical glass goblet of white wine, a sliced roll, cherries, a stag beetle and a knife.
Signed with monogram 'GF' (linked) (on the edge of the niche lower right)
PROPERTY FROM THE NEW YORK RESIDENCE OF JOHN W. KLUGE
Signed with monogram 'GF' (linked) (on the edge of the niche lower right)
Galerie André Weil, Paris, La Nature Morte et son Inspiration, 19 April - 15 May 1960, no. 20.
Old Master & British Paintings
24½ x 17¾ in. (62.2 x 45 cm.)
A. Wertheimer, La Nature Morte et son Inspiration, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1960, no. 20, illustrated.
H. Seifertová, 'Stilleben Georg Flegels, Themen, Kompositionen, Bedeutungen', in George Flegel- Stilleben, Stuttgart, 1993, p. 64, fig. 37.
Joseph V. Reed.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 10 January 1990, lot 214 (for $1,980,000).
with Richard Green, London, by whom sold to the present owner.