Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles

Otto Marseus van Schrieck (Dutch, Nijmegen 1619/20–1678 Amsterdam)
ca. 1670
Oil on canvas
26 7/8 x 20 3/4 in. (68.3 x 52.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1953
Accession Number:
Not on view
This sottobosco, or "forest floor," picture must have been painted about 1670, to judge from dated works by the artist that are similar in composition, manner of execution, and some details of subject matter. The main motif is a flourishing poppy plant, with large leaves and buds, and at the top a red flower in full bloom. Small groups of mushrooms share the moss-covered ground with a lizard, a snake, and two snails. As often in Marseus's work, the snake is keenly focused on a moth. Another snail and a butterfly are perched on leaves, and an overscaled dragonfly hovers at the left. The base of a ruined monument or building sets off the teeming life in the foreground and suggests civilization overcome by nature. A few large trees and a cloudy sky in the right background offer slight relief from the deliberately claustrophobic atmosphere of the composition. Despite the acrobatic ascent of the poppy plant, attention is drawn downward to the lacelike tendrils of moss, the reptiles and snails, and the crumbling block of stone, which lies next to a broken tree stump. Contemporary viewers would have noticed contrasting signs of growth and decay, and may have recalled that the butterfly is a symbol of the soul. But vanitas themes in Marseus's work, if intended at all, are quite secondary to his interest in specific kinds of flora and fauna. Several authors have noted that the term "still life" is inappropriate for such a picture, which might be called a "nature study" or "nature piece"; the point is stressed in Douglas Hildebrecht's doctoral dissertation, Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/20–1678) and the Nature Piece: Art, Science, Religion, and the Seventeenth-Century Pursuit of Natural Knowledge, University of Michigan, 2004.

In his early years, Marseus painted flower pieces, evidently turning to sottobosco nature studies when he moved to Rome (in the late 1640s or early 1650s; see Liedtke 2007). There he joined the fellowship of Netherlandish artists known as the Schildersbent, in which he was called "Snuffelaer" (Ferreter), a reference to his forest floor paintings. In the past, his work has been regarded as a surrealistic subcategory of still life painting, but he is now seen as a prominent figure among European artists who took a serious interest in the study of plants, animals, and other forms of natural life. He was an important influence on a few Italian artists, especially Paolo Porpora (1617–1679/80) and numerous northerners, including Willem van Aelst (1627–1683 or later), Matthijs Withoos (1627–1703), Rachel Ruysch (1664–175), Elias van den Broeck (1657–1708), Abraham Mignon (1640–1679), Nicolaes Lachtropius (active 1656–1700 or later), and Frans, James, and Karl Wilhelm de Hamilton. His patrons, ranging from Medici dukes to Dutch amateurs such as Agnes Block (1629–1704), were scholars of nature as well as patrons of the arts. While not a fine example of his work, his authorship of the Museum's picture has not been doubted by any specialist.

[2017; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed (lower left): otho Marseus / van Schrieck fecit
?Graf van Limburg Stirum, Rijksdorp, The Netherlands; Herr Schäfer, Düsseldorf (until 1953; sale, Lempertz, Cologne, May 6, 1953, no. 95, for $297 to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, New York, 1953; sold to MMA]
North Salem, N.Y. Hammond Museum. May 15–September 3, 1971, no catalogue?

Memphis. Brooks Memorial Art Gallery. "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," May 1–June 23, 1982, no catalogue?

Columbus, Ohio. Columbus Museum of Art. "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," August 28–November 28, 1982, no catalogue?

Hamilton, N.Y. Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University. "Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 6–April 17, 1983, no. 5.

Rochester, N.Y. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. "Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," May 3–June 5, 1983, no. 5.

Amarillo, Tex. Amarillo Art Center. "Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," June 22–July 31, 1983, no. 5.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

Richard Linke. "Ethno-Herpetological-Catalogue. A selection of amphibian and reptilian representations in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York." HERP, Bulletin of the New York Herpetological Society 7 (December 1970), p. 9, no. 16, identifies the reptiles in the painting as a lizard and a snake.

Ingvar Bergström. "Marseus peintre de fleurs, papillons et serpents." L'Oeil no. 233 (December 1974), p. 29, describes its motifs.

Everett Fahy. Metropolitan Flowers. New York, 1982, pp. 59, 109, ill. (color), describes the "opium poppy" as the principle subject of the "sinister painting".

Stephanie Dickey et al. Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University. Hamilton, N.Y., 1983, pp. 20–21, no. 5, ill., notes the accuracy with which each creature and plant is depicted, and suggests that some motifs may be symbolic.

Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 190.

Susanna Steensma. Otto Marseus van Schrieck: Leben und Werk. Hildesheim, 1999, pp. 143–44, 150, no. B1.69, fig. 93, identifies the plants and insects; notes that a few motifs occur in other paintings by the artist; mentions two variants.

Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 22, 50.

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. xi, 84, 450, 452–54, no. 115, colorpl. 115, dates it about 1670.

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