Otto Marseus van Schrieck (Nijmegen 1619 - Amsterdam 1678)

A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi

signed and dated ‘O/MARSEUS. 1660’ (lower centre)
oil on canvas
51.5 x 42 cm (20¼ x 16½ in)

Provenance: Private Collection, Germany.

A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi is a particularly fine example of the forest floor still life (or sottobosco) which Otto Marseus van Schrieck pioneered. Van Schrieck depicts a dark, dank forest floor, and there is a sense of oppressive humidity. It is a relatively forbidding scene due to the gloom, and the underlying threat associated with features such as the fungi, the viper, and the sand lizard. The snake, emerging from the shadows of the undergrowth, is about to attack the frog. Its mouth is open, prepared to bite, and its wide eyes are fixed on its prey, which has its back turned, unaware of the imminent danger. The rest of the work is populated by a range of fungi, thistles and moths.

The present painting is an early example of van Schrieck depicting snakes in his work. For example, the famous Sottobosco with Fungi, Toad and Snakes, in the Herzog Anton-Ulrich-Museum, was painted two years later in 1662. His early works were flower pieces, in the manner of the Utrecht school, which, during the early part of his Roman period, evolved into depictions of fungi. During the latter parts of the 1650s he started to introduce creatures such as snakes and lizards into the compositions, and the creatures continued to become increasingly exotic throughout his career.¹ A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi is comparable to much of his work during the 1660s, for example the Mauritshuis’ Plants and Insects. This work has a similar vertical format, with a focused and accurate depiction of a forest floor, and in both pieces the most eye-catching motif is the snake on the point of attack. The rest of the foregrounds are populated with motifs such as thistles, fungi and butterflies. However, despite their many similarities, A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi feels more oppressive, as the background is given less prominence.

It cannot be said for certain whether the present work was painted in Italy or Amsterdam. Van der Willigen and Meijer believe that van Schrieck left Italy c.1657, returning to the Netherlands perhaps via France and England.² Karin Leonhard, however, believes he was still in Italy as late as 1662.³ In any case he was certainly back in Amsterdam in 1664, when he married.

A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi demonstrates the inventiveness of van Schrieck’s technique. In the lower left hand corner is a patch of moss, which van Schrieck conveyed by applying oil paint onto a tool, which he pressed onto the canvas and removed rapidly, leaving a ridged surface. This area would then be painted again with a different colour to create the remarkable imitation of moss that can be seen.⁴ Van Schrieck is also known for a technique that is not in evidence in the present work, where real butterflies were pasted directly onto the canvas, rather than painting them.⁵ An example of this is Thistles, Reptiles and Butterflies in Grenoble, where the lower right of the three butterflies is a common nymphalid butterfly. The area of canvas is covered by a thick layer of white lead paint, and the scales of its dorsal side transferred directly onto it.⁶ This technique proved quite controversial, to the extent that van Schrieck’s follower Elias van den Broeck (1650-1708) was forced to leave Antwerp because of the indignation caused by it.

Van Schrieck is widely credited as inventing the genre of sottobosco painting. Although van der Willigen and Meijer slightly dispute this, ‘because it has not been clearly established whether other artists in Italy preceded him’, it is certain that the Dutch artist popularised the genre.⁷ These paintings ‘depict botanical and zoological life in dark underwoods or at the humid margins of pools’.⁸ Initially these works were created mainly in Rome, but in time Amsterdam became a centre for their production, as well as Naples, where it was adopted by Paolo Porpora (1617-1673), and Giuseppe (1634-1695) and Giovanni (c.1615-c.1660) Recco. They also found major interest in Florence, mainly because of the interest that the Medicis and their court had in the subject and artists such as van Schrieck and Matthias Withoos (1627-1703). The Medicis bought twelve paintings from van Schrieck between the early 1650s and his death in 1678, and Cosimo III (1642-1723) even visited him during a visit to the Netherlands. Douglas Hildebrecht has written that ‘The presence of such a large number of Marseus’ pictures in Florence made the Medici and visitors to the Granducal court the most important audience of the artist’s career’.⁹ Sottobosco paintings tapped into the widespread scientific interest in the natural world that existed in Italy during this period, and occupy an ‘intermediate position between nature and art’¹⁰. Artists who followed van Schrieck’s lead and explored the genre at length include van den Broeck, Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), Abraham Begeyn (c. 1637-1697) and Franz de Hamilton (fl. 1661-1695).

Looking at his work as a whole it is clear that van Schrieck was fascinated by the animals which he painted and their behaviour. According to his widow, as recorded by Arnold Houbraken, the author of De groote schouburgh der nederlantsche Konstschilders en schilderessen (The great Theatre of Dutch Painters), van Schrieck knew the habits of these creatures very well and is known to have bred snakes, lizards and insects himself. It therefore seems that many of the detailed flora and fauna contained in his paintings were based on careful study of the various animals, insects and plants he discovered and kept in his own garden, a ‘watery’ domain near Diemen.¹¹ Early on in his career, when he lived in Italy, van Schrieck was a member of the Schildersbent. This was a fraternal organisation dedicated to social fellowship and mutual assistance, founded in about 1620 by a number of Dutch and Flemish artists living in Rome. Although the society may not have contributed much to his scientific development, it is interesting to note that, according to Houbraken, it was here that van Schrieck received the nickname snuffelaer. He was given the name, meaning a ferreter or scrounger, ‘omdat hij allerwegen naar vreemd gekleurde of gespikkelde slangen, hagedissen, rupsen, spinnen, flintertjes en vreemde gewassen en kruiden omsnuffelde’ (‘because he was all about after strangely coloured and speckled snakes, lizards, caterpillars, spiders, butterflies and strange plants and herbs’).¹² This early interest in the smaller forms of nature was to dominate his painting throughout his career.

Although his subject matter may have been unusual in its specialist nature, van Schrieck’s work does reflect Dutch artistic culture in the seventeenth century, in that it is significantly informed by science. The practice of observing and then recording and registering results through pictures and texts, was fostered in even the most basic of schools, and consequently this culture was reflected in art. Several artists did engage in their own scientific experiments, and their interest is evident in their work, one such example being Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629). De Gheyn was known for his delicate watercolour studies of insects and flowers, which he often produced for private study and specific patrons, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Equally, many institutions, such as the botanical gardens at Leiden and Amsterdam, and the East and West Indies Companies, published scientific texts which were often illustrated by talented artists, such as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Published in 1705 her Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium presented her keen researches into plants and insects. The impressive plates were based on painstaking observations, many of them made with a magnifying glass. She published them with detailed descriptions, which were written with help from the director of the botanical gardens in Amsterdam. It is not difficult to imagine how the work of van Schrieck, with its acute study of animal interaction and the decay of nature, both developed from and influenced this scientific cultural backdrop.

Details of van Schrieck’s training and early career are scarce. In 1648 he was one of a number of young artists left the Low Countries for Rome, a group that also included Withoos. It is not clear whether Willem van Aelst (1627-1683) was also part of this trip, or whether they became friends in Rome. As already mentioned, in Rome he became a member of the Schildersbent, and clearly had great success there, not only in respect of the patrons he attracted, but also in terms of his artistic influence. It was in Rome that he invented and developed the genre of sottobosco, before returning to the Netherlands. Here he established his Waterrijk, where he cultivated and studied plant and insect life, and continued to paint the forest floor still lifes, with which he made his name. Through the work of illustrious pupils such as Ruysch his artistic influence continued to be felt thorough Europe, and with works such as A Sottobosco with an Aspic Viper, Sand Lizard, Tree Frog, Moths and Fungi he ‘defined and promoted a new sub-genre in the rich variety of 17th-cent. [sic] still lifes’.¹³

¹ See for example Sottobosco with Chameleon (Palazzo Pitti), which was purchased by Cosimo III de’Medici in 1681.
² Van der Willigen, A. & Meijer, F. G., A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Painters Working in Oils 1525-1725 (Leiden, 2003), p. 139.
³ Leonhard, K., ‘Pictura’s Fertile Field: Otto Marseus van Schrieck and the Genre of Sottobosco Painting’, in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art (vol. 34, no. 2, 2009/2010), p. 102.
⁴ Steensma, S., Otto Marseus van Schrieck: Leben und Werk (Hildesheim, 1999) pp. 71-75.
⁵ For more on butterfly imprints see Weber, G.J.M., Stilleben alter Meister in der Kasseler Gemäldegalerie (Melsungen, 1989), p. 36.
⁶ Berthier, S., Boulenguez, J., Menu, M. & Mottin, B., ‘Butterfly Inclusions in Van Schrieck Masterpieces. Techniques and Optical Properties’ in Applied Physics A (July 2008, vol. 92, issue 1, p. 51.
⁷ Van der Willigen & Meijer, p.139.
⁸ Leonhard, p. 95.
⁹ Hildebrecht, D. R., Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/20-1678) and the Nature Piece: Art, Science, Religion and the Seventeenth-Century Pursuit of Natural Knowledge (Ann Arbor, 2005), p.58.
¹⁰ Leonhard, p. 95.
¹¹ Van der Willigen & Meijer, p.139.
¹² Houbraken, A., De groote schouburgh der nederlantsche Konstschilders en schilderessen..., The Hague 1753, vol. I, p. 358.
¹³ Van der Willigen & Meijer, p.139.