Mignon, Abraham

(Frankfurt 1640 - 1679 Utrecht)

Still life with a Pumpkin, Peach, Grapes and Insects

Oil on panel
34 x 26.5 cm

Still life with a Pumpkin, Peach, Grapes and Insects

A stone ledge carries a lush assortment of prunes, peaches, grapes, a twig of gooseberries and tucked away behind them are cornelian cherries, blackberries and a pumpkin. The items create an abundancy that seems to flow over into the beholder’s space. The still life also imparts a strong sensory quality with its glistening drops of dew on the leaves and fruit that evoke an early time of day. In quite a literal sense a wealth of small animals enlivens the scene. Their activities are recorded with painstaking detail as if inviting the viewer to pick up a loupe and inspect them at an even closer range. On the left a snail lifts its head, curiously exploring the environment. Another is perched on the pumpkin. A caterpillar makes his way across the grapes in the centre of the composition and a butterfly has landed on the vine nearby. In the top a dragonfly hovers over the blackberry leaves.

The present intimate work was unknown until its recent rediscovery. It may be called an important addition to the relatively small corpus of some 120 paintings that are currently accepted as by Abraham Mignon.4 Born in Frankfurt, he came from a family of craftsmen that originally hailed from Wallonia. Abraham Mignon was to set forth a tradition of still life painting under Flemish and Dutch influence that had begun in the lower Main region a few generations earlier by the pioneers Daniel Soreau (1554-1619) and Georg Flegel (1565/66-1638) and then flourished with Peter Binoit (c. 1590-1632), Peter Soreau (1604-72) and Jacob Marrel (1613/14-81), Mignon’s first teacher. According to Houbraken Abraham was only seven when he was entrusted to Marrel
who just like Mignon’s family practiced the French reformed faith.5 Marrel left no visible mark on Mignon’s work. Instead, his style was shaped by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-84), Marrel’s own teacher. At an unknown time Marrel will have introduced his pupil to his former teacher De Heem and the two will have met in Utrecht where both settled in the early 1660s. It is assumed they shared a studio. They were anyhow closely in touch until 1672, when French troops invaded the Netherlands and occupied Utrecht. By then De Heem had probably fled the city, taking refuge in Antwerp. In 1675 Mignon married Maria Willaerts, grand-daughter of the Utrecht marine painter Adam Willaerts (1577-1664). He would stay in Utrecht for the rest of his life with the exception of a possible journey to Frankfurt in 1676.

Mignon hardly ever dated his works and not a single preserved specimen bears a legible date. His short productive life – he did not reach forty – precluded a clear development. Reconstructing his chronology is therefore a task fraught with difficulty. Kraemer- Noble’s suggestion that Mignon style and technique became less refined over the years is considered plausible by Meijer.6 The paintings that are candidates to be early output already show the marked influence of De Heem’s Utrecht production, which raises the question why no paintings from Mignon’s German period have come down to us. Whatever the case, the works that Mignon painted under De Heem’s watchful eye show him fully in command of a sublime technique and are noted for their high finish and subtle quality achieved by fine glazing. The works created between c. 1664-72 make up the most accomplished part of his oeuvre. The present painting also displays these hallmarks and can be assigned to this period. The dendrochronological analysis of the panel corroborates an early date.7 Infrared reflectography furthermore reveals changes the artist made during the painting process, indicating a search for perfection.8

Although De Heem’s personality looms large in our panel, Mignon’s own particular talents and preferences can be admired here to the full as well. Small and compact compositions were either an invention of himself or at any rate adopted independently from De Heem, whose still lifes invariably reserve more space showing an empty background. A comparable but more modest arrangement also featuring a pumpkin with grapes in front of it is in the museum Coblenz.9 Another similar small still life with grapes and peaches was in the museum of Dresden but was lost during World War II.10 Both in its close-knit and fuller arrangement and in its fine quality the panel in Cambridge featuring a peach, chestnuts, a quince and other fruit comes closer to our work.11 Finally, the small still life on panel showing grapes, peaches and chestnuts in Karlsruhe is highly comparable with the work here under discussion.12 None of these paintings, however, exudes the same extravagance. Our panel jumps out with its rich and vibrant colours.

As perishable items, fruit and flowers are imbued with vanitas ideas. A devout Calvinist, Mignon often highlighted the vanitas concept, playing it out in many details that portray the ravages of time. In this still life the decay has taken the form of a chipped stone ledge, of rotten or bruised spots on the fruit or teared leaves. Mignon also brilliantly captured the translucent frailty of the fruit, especially the grapes, during their short-lived freshness and tastiness before they waste away. The succulent fruit is dramatically contrasted with the thorny stems of the blackberry and gooseberries while the cornelian cherries, beautiful but noted for their bitterness, add another sharp edge.

The numbers on the front and reverse of our painting appear to be seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century and are no doubt inventory numbers. The three-digit number in faint reddish paint bears a striking resemblance to the inventory numbers that are commonly found on paintings in the electoral collection of Saxony, one of the grandest and finest princely collections in Europe amassed by Augustus II the Strong (1670-1733) which later would form the nucleus of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, and refer to the manuscript inventory of 1722-28. On these works the ‘2’ is, however, usually written as a ‘z’, like with the number 23 on the reverse. Paintings from Dresden, on the other hand, normally are not inscribed with such numbers on the reverse.13 Our painting does not feature in early printed eighteenth-century or in the later, nineteenth-century catalogues of the collection. It cannot be fully ruled out, though, that our still life once formed part of the celebrated collection of Augustus the Strong, who had a marked preference for Mignon. Until the end of the Second World War the gallery in Dresden even boasted the largest collection of paintings by Mignon in a museum.14


1 Copy RKD.
2 Note Hofstede de Groot, RKD.
3 According to the entry in the catalogue for the sale, Cologne (Lempertz), 30 May 2020, no. 2077.
4 In the most recent edition of her catalogue raisonné Kraemer-Noble lists 116 paintings: M. Kraemer-
Noble, Abraham Mignon 1640-1679: catalogue raisonné, Petersberg 2007. After that a few other works have come to light at auctions that she or Meijer has accepted as autograph.
5 A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 3 vols.,
Amsterdam 1718-21, III, pp. 82-83. Houbraken may have procured his information from one of Mignon’s
daughters. For a more recent biography see Heise in Saur LXXXIX, 2016, p. 409.
6 Kraemer-Noble 2007, p. 31. F.G. Meijer, Jan Davidsz. de Heem 1606-84, 2 vols., diss., University of
Amsterdam, 2016, I, pp. 227, 418, note 498.
7 According to Peter Klein of Hamburg University the panel was ready for use by 1661. His report of 18
October 2020.
8 The IRR shows that Mignon had planned a sprig of cornelian cherries hanging over the ledge and
replaced them with the apricots.
9 Mittelrhein Museum. Canvas, 43.3 x 34.9 cm. Kraemer-Noble 2007, pp. 74-75, no. 15.
10 Formerly Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister. Panel, 47 x 36 cm. Kraemer-Noble 2007, pp. 76-77, no. 16.
11 Fitzwilliam Museum. Panel, 34 x 27 cm. Kraemer-Noble 2007, pp. 80-81, no. 18.
12 Staatliche Kunsthalle. Panel, 40 x 32.5 cm. Kraemer-Noble 2007, pp. 84-85, no. 20.
13 Written communication dated 13 October 2020 with Gregor Weber, Rijksmuseum, who was a curator in Dresden in 1994-2004. The manuscript inventory of 1722-28, which is unpublished, was not consulted.
14 Kraemer-Noble 2007, p. 76. A few were destroyed during the war and others have left the collection at an unknown time and no reliable photos exist of them. Therefore, Kraemer-Noble was only able to catalogue 8 pictures by Mignon as being in Dresden or having part of that collection: nos. 1, 12, 13, 16, 44, 55, 70, 104. Gerrit Dou’s Cat Crouching on the Ledge of an Artist’s Atelier (New York, Leiden Collection) also bears an inventory number on the front and is documented as coming from the Dresden gallery, see D. Surh, “Cat Crouching on the Ledge of an Artist’s Atelier” (2017) in A.K. Wheelock and L. Yeager-Crasselt (eds.), The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 3rd ed., New York, 2020– : https://theleidencollection.com/artwork/cat-crouching-on-the-ledge-of-an-artists-atelier/ (accessed October 19, 2020). Interestingly, it was auctioned from a Rhenish private collection with Lempertz in Cologne (20 May 2006, no. 1040) just like our painting.

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