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Georg Flegel (Olmütz 1566-1638 Frankfurt am Main) and Martin van Valckenborch (Leuven 1535-1612 Frankfurt am Main), ‘Tulips, carnations and other flowers in a vase, with melons strawberries, peaches, apples, grapes and other fruit on a table in an interior, a man and woman in the background‘, oil on canvas, 45¼ x 68¼ in. (115 x 173.5 cm.). Estimate $500,000 – $700,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

Provenance: (Probably) Duke Charles Gustave de Tessin (1695-1770), Akerö Castle, Sweden, and by descent to his nephew
Frederick Sparre, 1803, and by inheritance to his son-in-law
Frederick Montgomery; his sale, 1858, to the following.
C. Arfwedson, and by descent to his granddaughter
Maria Th. Cederström, 1869, and by descent to a private collector.

Exhibited: Frankfurt, Historisches Museum, and Prague, National Gallery, Georg Flegel, 1566-1638: Stilleben, 1993 and 1994, no. 9 (entry by I. Bergstrom).
Leeuwarden, Fries Museum, Van Jan Steen tot Jan Sluijters, 21 November 1998-21 December 1999, no. 7 (catalogue by M. Stoter).

Notes: Three paintings disguised as one, this striking canvas is at once an elegant flower-piece, expansive still-life, and narrative genre scene. In order that such a feat be accomplished, two separate artists were involved in its production. George Flegel, the son of a shoemaker, moved from his hometown Olmütz (in what is now the Czech Republic) to Vienna in 1580. Almost immediately after his arrival in Austria, Flegel became the assistant of Lucas van Valkenborch I (1535-1597), contributing the staffage and still-life set pieces to Valkenborch’s allegorical depictions of the seasons and portraits. The pair moved to Frankfurt in the mid-1580s, and produced a number of grand and successful collaborative works in the following decade. After Van Valkenborch I’s death in 1597, Flegel likely began to work with Martin van Valkenborch, brother of Lucas, who had lived in Frankfurt since 1586. Flegel also at this stage began to produce independent still-life pictures, including works now in the National Gallery, Prague and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.

Here, Flegel’s’ hand is apparent in the abundant fruits and vegetables laid out on the table which occupies the central focus of the composition: wild strawberries, figs, breakfast melons, Italian plums, snow peas, persimmons, grapes, and apples – all displayed in delicate wicker baskets or fine porcelain dishes. This exquisite still life displays Flegel’s extraordinary sensitivity to texture and detail. The towering bouquet of flowers at left, also painted by Flegel, is similarly impressive, each long, thin brushstroke carefully layered to evoke the proliferation of diverse blossoms, stems, and leaves. A flower piece by Flegel in the Heinz Collection, to which this bouquet closely relates, has been dated by Ingvar Bergström to c. 1595 (loc. cit.). That work displays a similar radial arrangement of the individual blooms; however, as Bergström also points out, the present bouquet reveals a more developed and confident approach to this compositional format, and he suggests this large canvas was painted somewhat later, c. 1600.

Given this dating, it is likely that Flegel’s collaborator in the present work was Martin van Valkenborch, who would have been responsible for the elegantly dressed figures at right. The ruddy-complected, bearded man sitting at the far end of the table grips a large glass of wine (from which he may have already had a few sips), wrapping his arm about the woman who stands before him. She, presumably, has tried to avoid his advances, looking upwards in exasperation as she gestures with her left hand towards some grapes in the alcove and with her right towards a dish of mulberries at the center of the table before her. As Eddy de Jongh has demonstrated, untouched grapes symbolized chastity and virginity in Dutch and Flemish art of this period, while mulberries may have been interpreted as symbols of the Last Judgment and, in turn, reminders of how best to lead a good life on earth (see E. de Jongh, “Grape Symbolism in Paintings of the 16th and 17th Centuries”, Simiolus, VII, 1974, pp. 166ff.). Mulberries are the favorite food of silk worms, which, in turn, develop into cocoons and then butterflies, a three-stage lifecycle which had long been thought of as a metaphor for the Christian belief in earthly life, death, and the subsequent resurrection of the soul.

Christie’s. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS PART I, 28 January 2015,New York, Rockefeller Plaza