Renaissance artists and patrons were obsessed with Pliny's Natural History, written in the first century A.D., which contained detailed descriptions of great works of art from antiquity. The fact that most of those works no longer existed added allure to their imagined perfection. Among the most intriguing was a picture of grapes by the famous Zeuxis (fifth century B.C.) that was "so successfully represented that birds flew up to it." Executed as part of a competition, Zeuxis found himself beaten by his archrival Parrhasius, who painted a curtain so realistically that Zeuxis reached out to pull it back. Zeuxis had fooled the birds, but Parrhasius had fooled an artist at his own game!
There can be no question that Antonio da Crevalcore (1443–1525) had this story in mind when he painted Still Life with Grapes and a Bird, considered to be one of the earliest extant independent still lifes in European painting. As a matter of fact, Crevalcore was compared to Zeuxis by a contemporary poet, Filoteo Achillini (1466–1538), who counted among his patrons the fascinating Isabella d'Este (1474–1539), a passionate collector of Greek and Roman antiquities and an avid reader of classical texts. In 1506 she received a picture described as "fruit done by Antonio da Crevalcore, who among us is most singular in this kind of work, but takes more time than nature!"
With its wood shelves and bowl viewed in perspective, the simplified forms of the fruit, and the stem of grapes projecting into the viewer's space, the picture recalls 15th-century inlaid wood panels, also known as intarsia, one of the most elaborate examples of which is the Museum's studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio.
European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through March 26, 2017
Now at The Met: "Growing The Met's Collection of European Paintings" (December 12, 2016)