PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION FORMED BY THE LATE DR GUSTAV RAU
signed and dated lower left: A: C..orte 1686
Possibly Willem Russell collection, Amsterdam, by 1960;
With Silvano Lodi, Munich, by 1969.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam Historisch Museum, Kunsthandelaar en verzamelaar - Art dealer and collector..., 1970, no. 17;
Munich, Silvano Lodi, Exhibition of Old Masters, 6 - 24 November 1969, no. 8.
Painted in 1686, this is the first of only five vanitas still lifes by Adriaen Coorte, each of which was executed in consecutive years (in 1686, 1687 and 1688). After 1688 Coorte's oeuvre takes on an entirely independent character, eschewing the current taste for grandeur and opulence for small-scale simplicity. His was a style which bore no connection to preceding artists and which had little, if any, influence on succeeding generations; his work stands alone amid the plethora of 17th-century painters vying for the public's attention with ever more lavish still lifes. Strangely, Coorte's very earliest works are painted in the manner of Melchior d'Hondecoeter1 but his vanitas still lifes of the mid-1680s are the first to hint at the extraordinary and idiosyncratic career ahead of him; here, for example, both the placement of the objects before a plain dark background and the purity of the stark light which floods them, together with a discernible interest in the subtleties of texture, shape and form, are all characteristics which dominate his later work. However, in its comparatively complicated arrangement and selection of objects, akin to the works of, for example, Edwart Collier (1640-1710), this painting is one of the more conventional of all the artist's still lifes.
Although Coorte abandoned the vanitas still life after only five attempts, each one is immediately striking. Unlike most artists of the vanitas still life Coorte does not rely on textual references to convey his message but expresses himself purely through the language of painting and, although he includes here the usual references to death (with the skull and the empty conch shell, the latter identified as Strombus gigas), as well as to life's transience (in the hourglass), the sombre tone is permeated by a sense of hope through the ear of corn, an emblem of the Resurrection. In Coorte's final vanitas of 1688 in the Burger Weeshuis, Zierikzee, this sense of optimism is achieved through the evergreen ivy which clings to the underside of the niche and stands for eternal life;2 both this and the Zierikzee work make use of the same oil lamp and skull, which is characterised by its split upper left jaw and missing front five teeth.
Many attempts have been made to piece together the life of Adriaen Coorte but remarkably little is known of him. There is scarcely a reference to him in the documents of his home-town, Middelburg in Zeeland, other than a mention in the ledgers of the Guild of St. Luke from 1695/6, and even here it is only a surname and emphasises his not being a member of the guild.3 Bredius claimed to have identified several references to an Adrian or Adr. Coorte in the notarial archives of Amsterdam from 1700/01 but Laurens J. Bol has since falsified these claims.4 That we know so little only adds to the mystery of his small paintings, although his apparent lack of fame could be explained by his overt rejection of current fashion and taste. His relative anonymity endured not only his lifetime but through the subsequent centuries; Middelburg sale records from the 18th century reveal his works obtaining prices inferior to almost every other painting. Although his first mention in an art historical publication occurred in 1881,5 it was not until 1949 that Bol published the first study on his oeuvre;6 immediately following this his fame escalated and his still lifes are today amongst the most collectible of any Dutch still life painter of the age.
1. His earliest work is dated 1683 and depicts a company of exotic birds in a landscape; see Bol, under Literature, p. 44, no. 1, reproduced p. 73, fig. 1.
2. Bol, op. cit., p. 46, no. 11, reproduced p. 82, fig. 8.
3. Ontfangen van... Corrde fijnschilder, omdat hij ondernomen hadde, niet vrij zijnde in St. Lucas op de buers eenige schilderije te vercoopen (trans. by Bol: 'Received from... Coorde, art painter, because he had undertaken, not being free in St. Luke, to sell paintings on the exchange'); see Bol, ibid., p. 4.
4. Idem, p. 3, note 1.
5. H. Havard, Histoire de la Peinture Hollandaise, 1881.
6. See L.J. Bol, "Adriaen S. Coorte: Stillevenschilder", in Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, vol. IV, 1952-53, pp. 193ff.
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