Flegel, from Moravia, worked in Vienna and Frankfurt am Main. His style eschews Netherlandish refinement in favor of naturalistic precision, a tradition extending from Albrecht Dürer to nature studies by Dutch and Flemish draftsmen of the seventeenth century.
The Artist: Georg Flegel, one of the originators of the independent still life genre, appears to have trained in the 1580s with the Flemish painter Lucas van Valckenborch (ca. 1535–1597) in Linz, Austria, where the latter was court painter to Matthias, archduke of Austria. In 1592 or 1593, Flegel followed Valckenborch to Frankfurt, where they joined Valckenborch’s elder brother Marten, also a painter and one of many immigrants who had fled Spanish rule in the Southern Netherlands to settle in the prosperous trade center on the Main River. The earliest presumed works by Flegel consist of still-life accessories that he contributed to allegories and genre paintings by Lucas van Valckenborch. After Valckenborch’s death in 1597, Flegel gained citizenship in Frankfurt and established himself independently as a still-life specialist, producing mostly small-format, tightly cropped pictures of meals and desserts, of which the Metropolitan’s panel is a typical example.
The Picture: This small painting shows an arrangement of food and drink on a green tabletop decked with a white cloth. On a pewter plate is a roast bird, probably a fieldfare, its curled form the result of one foot having been inserted through the skull in preparation for cooking. Two green olives lie next to the bird, and a cut lemon for seasoning the meat rests just beyond the plate. Farther back stand a roemer-type glass filled with white wine and an earthenware jug traditionally referred to as a Bartmannskrug (bearded man jug), after the face of a bearded man appearing just below the neck. At the right, a blue tit alights on a loaf of white bread, grasping a quarter walnut taken from the table below. The blue of the bird’s head, wings, and back appears to have darkened considerably with the aging of the paint (Ketelsen-Volkhardt 2003).
Although the present work entered the Museum as an anonymous Dutch painting, by 1934 it was recognized as by Flegel on the advice of Curt Benedict and Alphonsus P. A. Vorenkamp (memorandum in curatorial file, January 19, 1934). The Flegel expert Wolfgang J. Müller (1949) later affirmed the attribution on the basis of style and subject matter. The question of authorship was definitively settled with the subsequent discovery of the artist’s tiny monogram in the lower right corner.
The dating of this work is less certain. Flegel’s only dated easel paintings are late works of the 1630s; thus, his earlier stylistic development is a matter of conjecture. That the New York panel belongs in the late phase of Flegel’s career, in the 1620s or 1630s, is suggested by its general consistency in composition and handling with late works such as the Still Life with a Stag Beetle of 1635 (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). Müller first dated the MMA work about 1630, but later revised his dating to the years 1626–28 (1949 and 1956). In general agreement, Kurt Wettengl (1983 and 1993) proposed a date before 1629. Lending support to a date in the late 1620s is a watercolor by Flegel, inscribed with the date 1629 by its presumed first owner (Conradt Wagner), which depicts the same blue tit and halved walnut (formerly Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, destroyed in World War II). However, the possibility that Flegel made the painting several years before or after the watercolor cannot be discounted, since both blue tit motifs probably derive from a common model. The same bird in an identical pose appears in further compositions by Flegel, including the 1637 canvas now in the Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, which far postdates the aforementioned watercolor that left the artist’s workshop by 1629; other still lifes with the same blue tit are in a private collection, Berlin, and the Kunstmuseum, Basel.
The Bartmann jug at the upper left appears again in the picture dated 1635 in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, in a work dated 1638 in the Národní Galerie, Prague, and in an undated painting in the Pommersches Landesmuseum, Greifswald (Ketelsen-Volkhardt 2003). The reuse of this studio prop in the Cologne and Prague pictures again aligns the New York panel with Flegel’s late production. Bartmann jugs were a specialty of potters in Cologne and the nearby town of Frechen from the sixteenth century onward. The example owned by Flegel with the oak-leaf and acorn decoration is known from surviving specimens.
The meal shown here reflects the dietary habits of the merchant and noble classes that constituted Flegel’s clientele. As Hana Seifertová noted (1993), fieldfares were a delicacy frequently enjoyed by the wealthy. In a contemporary cookbook by Marx Rumpolt, chef to the elector of Mainz, roast fieldfares are recommended among the first and second courses of breakfasts, and in some cases dinners, for the wealthy bourgeoisie and a broad range of the nobility (see Ein new Kochbuch [Frankfurt, 1581], fols. 21r, 25v, 31r, 32r, 35r, 38v). However, the inclusion here of the little blue tit, pausing to contemplate its cooked kin while stealing the walnut bit, transforms a straightforward depiction of food into a subtle vanitas image alluding to life’s transience.
Eucharistic allusions have also been seen in this image. Wettengl (1993) noted that, in addition to the clear symbolism of the Lord’s Supper in the bread and wine, according to Early Christian and medieval exegesis, the nutshell could stand for both the wood of the Cross and the human nature of Christ, while the kernel symbolized Christ’s divine nature. Birds were traditional symbols of the soul; thus, the blue tit grasping the walnut could allude to the soul eager for salvation.
[Joshua P. Waterman 2012]
Inscription: Signed (lower right): GF. [monogram]
Dr. W. Bopp, New York (until 1921)
Cambridge, Mass. Fogg Art Museum. "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art," April 16–May 15, 1928, no catalogue?
Hartford, Conn. Wadsworth Atheneum. "The Painters of Still Life," January 25–February 15, 1938, no. 31 (as "Objects on a Table").
Corning, N.Y. Corning Museum of Glass. "Glass Vessels in Dutch Painting of the 17th Century," August 15–October 1, 1952, no. 2 (of paintings).
Wolfgang J. Müller. Letter to Margaretta Salinger. January 26, 1949, dates it "with some certainty" to about 1630.
Thomas S. Buechner. Glass Vessels in Dutch Painting of the 17th Century. Exh. cat., Corning Museum of Glass. Corning, N.Y., 1952, pp. 18, 30, no. 2, pl. III, discusses the roemer.
Wolfgang J. Müller. Der Maler Georg Flegel und die Anfänge des Stillebens. Frankfurt am Main, 1956, pp. 117, 161, no. 25, pl. 23, as "Imbiß mit Meise".
Colin Eisler. "A Chardin in the Grand Manner." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (February 1960), p. 204, ill. p. 207.
Kurt Wettengl. "Die Mahlzeitenstilleben von Georg Flegel." PhD diss., Universität Osnabrück, 1983, pp. 36–37, 39, 50–51 nn. 21, 24, p. 53 n. 55, p. 55 n. 68, p. 57 n. 87, p. 63 n. 118, pp. 65, 112–13, 147–48, 150, 165–66, 183, 303, fig. 23.
Hana Seifertová inGeorg Flegel, 1566–1638: Stilleben. Exh. cat., Historisches Museum, Frankfurt. Stuttgart, 1993, pp. 64, 120, 124, 146, no. 37, ill. p. 123 (color).
Kurt Wettengl inGeorg Flegel, 1566–1638: Stilleben. Exh. cat., Historisches Museum, Frankfurt. Stuttgart, 1993, pp. 176, 200, under no. 92.
Hana Seifertová inGeorg Flegel (1566–1638): Zátisí. Exh. cat., Národní Galerie v Praze. Prague, 1994, pp. 65, 93, 103, 181, fig. 15.
Hana Seifertová. "Zur Neuerwerbung der 'Vögel' von Georg Flegel." Georg Flegel, Vögel, 1637. Leipzig, 2000, p. 56.
Anne-Dore Ketelsen-Volkhardt. Georg Flegel, 1566–1638. Munich, 2003, pp. 83–84, 135, 137, 182–84, 188, 211, 219, no. 9, fig. 59.