THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
oil on canvas
His sale, Dordrecht, A. Mak, 12-14 December 1950, lot 2;
H.F. van Walsem, Eindhoven, by 1958;
Thence by descent to the present owner.
Any discussion of Coorte's work usually starts with observations about how little we know of his life, and reflects on the mysterious qualities of his works, and how they appear to exist in isolation, without obvious influences from other artists (and without in turn exerting influence on others), characteristics perhaps due in part to his presumed career in geographically isolated Middelburg and the possibility that since he was not a member of the painter's Guild painting may not have been his sole profession. A mere 64 pictures by him are known today, and there is no doubt they constitute a remarkable body of work, one of rigorously restricted subject matter, concentrated simplicity of treatment and high technical accomplishment. Most of what we do know of him, and moreover the high esteem in which he is now held as a still life painter of outstanding quality and originality, is due to the work of Laurens J. Bol (1898-1994), Director of the Dordrechts Museum for many years, who first wrote about Coorte in 1952, and who mounted the first exhibition devoted to him in 1958. The present picture was included in that exhibition, but it vanished from view thereafter, and has been discussed in subsequent literature on the basis of a black and white photograph – plus perhaps a recollection of it in the minds of older scholars.
Apart from a few early works featuring poultry and other birds in landscape settings which reveal such a strong influence from Melchior de Hondecoeter that it is usually assumed that he worked in the latter's studio in Amsterdam, Coorte's subject-matter is restricted to still lifes of strictly limited themes: asparagus, wild strawberries (then the only kind), fruit including medlars, peaches, apricots, red- and blackcurrants, cherries (occasionally), gooseberries, grapes, and peaches (but excluding apples, and with one exception, citrus fruit), and shells, a distinct sub-genre. It is tempting to speculate that his subject matter was determined by the seasons. If so, he would have painted shells in winter when no fruit were available, asparagus from late April to early June, strawberries in June and July, other fruit from late summer to early autumn, and grapes and medlars in early autumn (the latter are best picked after they have been touched by the first frost). The combinations of fruit chosen by Coorte bear this out. For example, asparagus and strawberries often appear together, sometimes with gooseberries and red- and blackcurrants (which are more easily forced in a greenhouse), but never in combination with late summer or autumn fruits. He painted a few pictures of nuts, available throughout the autumn.
In view of the fruit depicted, this picture was therefore most probably painted in the late summer or early autumn of 1688. It is the only one of Coorte's known pictures to include a melon, and appears to be the only one to include a fig. The inclusion of such fruit perhaps reflects their availability, although one would assume that figs were grown locally then as now. Such fruit, and those yet more exotic, do occur in the works of other Dutch and Flemish still life painters, and indeed it is a commonplace that Jan Davidsz. de Heem moved to Antwerp because of the rich profusion of imported fruits and other produce in the city's markets, but perhaps they were not so often seen in Middelburg in the more turbulent circumstances of the 1680s.
The present work is consistent in style (as well as the form of its signature and date) with other of Coorte's works on canvas from 1685-7, which typically have a dark green background.1 It is the latest dated work before his style and form of signature seems to have changed, as well as his preferred support, since the majority of his works after the 1680s are on paper, laid down then or later on panel or canvas.
1. See for example the two still lifes with suspended twigs of apricots (and cherries) and medlars in private collectuions in Engalnd and the U.S.A.; see Buvelot under Literature, p. 86, nos. 6 & 7, reproduced in colour p. 87.
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