Although commonplace today, such shells were great rarities in the 17th century and were extremely expensive. Like tulips, they became the subject of intense commercial speculation, and victims of this indulgence were mocked as 'shelpenzotten' or 'shell fools'. Consequently shells, like flowers, came to be seen as emblems of vanitas. Segal has argued that the shells in Van der Ast's paintings were indeed intended as vanitas symbols.1 This understanding would have been reinforced to the viewer by the juxtaposition of such elements of transience and worldliness, such as the decaying fruit. While it is not clear that such a meaning was intended by this picture, its intimate character certainly meets the contemplative requirements of the vanitas subject. Too few of Van der Ast's paintings are dated to enable us to construct a chronology for small-scale works such as this. Securely dated examples range only from 1617 to 1628.
Fred Meijer, to whom we are grateful for endorsing the attribution, has suggested a dating to the late 1630's.
1. S. Segal, A Prosperous Past, the Sumptuous Still-Life in the Netherlands 1600-1700, The Hague 1988, pp. 88-89.
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