Pieter Gallis (1633 - Hoorn 1697)
A Swag of Flowers Hanging in a Niche, with Gooseberries, Strawberries, Roses, Plums, an Iris, a Daisy and a Spider
signed ‘PGallis’ (lower left)
oil on panel
35.6 x 43.8 cm (14 x 17¼ in)
Lady Elizabeth Clyde (née Wellesley);
Old Master Paintings, Brod Gallery, London 1978, no. 14;
her sale, Sotheby’s, London, 7 July 1976, lot 6;
with A. Brod, Ltd., London;
Private collection, Germany;
with Noortman, Maastricht, 1991;
Anonymous sale [The Property of a Private Collector], Christie’s, Amsterdam, 14 May 2003, lot 186, where acquired by the previous owner.
A. van der Willigen & F. G. Meijer, A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-life Painters working in Oils, Leiden 2003, p. 88.
In this delicately naturalistic composition, Pieter Gallis demonstrates the immense technical skill that the still life genre of seventeenth-century Dutch art demanded. Unlike other paintings of a similar subject matter, Gallis’ decision to present the flowers here in a swag enables an imaginative perspective and the opportunity to experiment in full with the advances made in botanical and optic sciences at this time.
Some of the objects depicted in Gallis’ arrangement can be assigned symbolic meanings: the minutely patterned garden spider, for instance, can arguably signify death. Similarly, the dusky butterfly perched precariously on a leaf to the left of the ear of golden corn can be interpreted as a reminder of the carefree life of the soul after it has been freed from the burdens of life. The flowers and fruits, now plucked from their trees and plants are designed too to represent the transience and essential vanitas of nature. There are, however, other interpretations that ascribe far less weight to such suggestions.
Gallis’ exquisitely accurate rendition of luscious strawberries, plump gooseberries and the painstaking clarity with which he delineates the structures and colours of the flowers, afford his composition an uncanny vitality. Gallis’ skill is evident in another of his still lifes (fig. 1) which is displayed in the Rijksmuseum. The fruits radiate a characteristic luminous quality that is all the more emphasised against the dark backdrop.
Before its place in the Golden Age of Dutch art was recognised, the genre of still life was not seen as one autonomous in its own right. Dutch fascination with horticulture and a keen affinity to their surroundings in general have been credited with the upsurge in creativity and artistry around previously mundane and un-extraordinary objects that became the subject of so many still lifes. Moreover, the translation into modern European languages from Latin of Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories may have encouraged artists including Ambrosius Bosschaert II. Pliny makes specific mention of the pleasure that the Romans took in artistically translating images of nature onto the walls of their homes. He recounts one famous anecdote of birds coming to peck at grapes painted by Zeuxis because they were so life like. Artists like Gallis, in his A Swag of Flowers Hanging in a Niche with Gooseberries, Strawberries, Roses, Plums, an Iris, a Daisy and a Spider perhaps took the same pleasure in reproducing beautiful and exact replicas of nature in art.
The painting was once in the collection of Lady Elizabeth Clyde, the daughter of Gerald Wellesley, 7th Duke of Wellington (1885-1972). From 1936-1943 the Duke was Surveyor of the King’s Works of Art, and in 1947 he gave Apsley House and its famed art collection to the nation, although he also retained some works for the family’s private collection. Whether or not Lady Elizabeth inherited the present work from her father or acquired it elsewhere, it seems likely that she would have relied on his connoisseurship and expertise to help form her collection.