THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Like his still lifes, Coorte’s life is marked by its relative isolation. Most probably a native of Middleburg in the province of Zeeland, he seems to have been active between 1683 and 1705, and his known work consists today of sixty four paintings. His earliest works feature birds and poultry and are sufficiently close in style and motif to those of Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) to suggest that he may have been trained by him in Amsterdam. The only written record of his career is a mention in the yearbook of the Painters Guild of Saint Luke in Middleburg for 1695-6, in which he is criticised for selling works independently of the Guild, which may infer that he was an amateur or gentleman painter. It is certainly true that his mature works do not show the obvious influence of other artists, and in their turn they do not seem to have exerted any influence upon anybody else. Indeed, in stark contrast to the prevailing contemporary fashion for more lavish and exuberant still life pictures, in, say, the work of Abraham Mignon, Coorte’s own pictures are instantly recognisable for their simplicity of treatment and restricted range of subject matter. In a limited sense he can perhaps be seen as the spiritual heir of the great Haarlem still life painters Pieter Claesz.(c.1597-1660) and Willem Claesz. Heda (1594-1680) whose often simple subjects and close interest in, and examination of, the effects of light and texture he clearly shared, and indeed he may have encountered their style through the work of painters such as Karel Slabbaert, who brought it from Amsterdam to Middleburg.
Coorte’s still life paintings are certainly highly distinctive. In his simple designs, natural objects sit upon stone ledges against a dark background. His subject matter is restricted to limited themes: asparagus, wild strawberries, fruit, including peaches, medlars, apricots, black and redcurrants, cherries, gooseberries and grapes, and lastly nuts and shells. Their combinations were very probably determined by their seasonal availability, and are occasionally accompanied (as here) by a delicate butterfly. Coorte painted peaches on several occasions, but this is one of only five paintings in which they appear alone. The others are all now in private collections; two of these are dated to 1696, with one of 1705 on loan to the Mauritshuis in The Hague.1 Although the present work is not dated, it forms part of a small group of still-lifes which are signed with initials. A recently discovered work of 1693 in this group is probably the earliest of these examples,2 and thus we might tentatively advance a possible dating for around 1693-1695/6 for the group as a whole. In each work in the group the table is seen from a slightly lower viewpoint than is usual, and stretches the entire width of the composition. The only exception is the present painting in which it is cleverly brought just to edge of the picture, thus heightening the relationship of the peaches to its edge. The closest of the group in terms of design and feeling is the Still life with two peaches and a butterfly, sold in these Rooms, 5 July 2006, lot 36 (fig.1). In both cases the butterfly is introduced into the design to act as a balance; in the case of the other painting to hold a diagonal, but here in order to create and hold a triangle formed at its base by the three peaches. A rather similar equilibrium is apparent in another picture in this group, the Still life with three medlars and a butterfly in a Dutch private collection.3 It is a most delicate balance, held not by simple geometry alone but also by colour and light, and can only have been achieved with considerable forethought. Indeed the apparent simplicity of Coorte’s designs belie their technical refinement. The soft texture of the skin of the peaches is delicately explored by the brush, and both their bloom and imperfections most carefully portrayed.
From this point, in the mid-1690s onwards, many of Coorte’s paintings were painted on paper laid down on canvas, or as here, on panel. It is not clear at what stage this transfer was made, and whether it was made by Coorte himself or by somebody else at a later date. As many of the panel supports are clearly old, it is quite probable that they were laid down before leaving his studio. It is possible that Coorte drew his basic design on paper first, and then worked in oils on top of this.4 The technique is certainly highly unusual in either the seventeenth or the eighteenth centuries and may very well have been personal to him.
1. Q. Buvelot, The still lifes of Adriaen Coorte (active c.1683-1707) with oeuvre catalogue, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle2008, pp. 92, cat. nos. 17 and 18, p. 99, cat. no. 27, and p. 118, cat. no. 62, all reproduced.
2. Still life with asparagus, cherries and a butterfly, now in a Swiss private collection. Buvelot, op. cit., p.90, cat. no. 14.
3. Ibid., p. 90, cat. no. 16, reproduced in colour plate 26.
4. In two cases Coorte is known to have re-used paper that had already been written on. The ex-Sotheby’s Still life of peaches and a butterfly, for example, was shown during restoration to have been painted over a page from the account book of merchant trading in Gdansk in the early 1600s.
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