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Georg Flegel (1566-1638)

Georg Flegel (1566-1638)

A still life in a stone niche with a roemer, half a walnut, sticks of sugar and a fly

This small painting by Georg Flegel is deceptively simple.  A roemer, a halved walnut, and several sticks of sugar appear within a shallow niche.  Light enters from the left, casting shadows on the wall at the right, and a fly has landed next to the sugar providing the only obvious suggestion of movement or the passage of time in the scene.  

As in the table top still lifes of Flegel’s Flemish contemporaries, Osias Beert (c.1580-1624) and Clara Peeters (c.1589-1657), the spatial relationship between the elements of the composition and the setting has been manipulated in order to provide a better view of each object . The space within the niche appears as if it has been tipped towards the viewer and the walnut and sugar are seen almost head on.  These qualities tend to be associated with the naïveté of early seventeenth-century still life, but Still life in a niche is an equally complex and sophisticated study of light. Indeed, Flegel’s primary interest seems to have been how light interacts with a glass of wine—how it is reflected in the rounded bowl of the roemer, how the interior space of the glass is collapsed by the distortion of the liquid and the light, and how the reflections extending from the rim of the glass reveal the light source, daylight entering through the windows opposite the niche.  The simplicity of Flegel’s palette, limited to browns, ochres, and shades of grey, emphasises the complexity and translucency of the light effects.

Georg Flegel was the son of a shoemaker, born in Olmütz, Moravia, in 1566.  Perhaps due to his adherence to the Protestant faith he moved to Vienna sometime after 1580, when the effects of the Counter-Reformation became unavoidable in Olmütz. Flegel became an assistant to the Flemish painter Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-1597) in Vienna and moved with him to Frankfurt around 1592, providing staffage and still life elements for Valckenborch’s landscapes and series of the seasons.   Frankfurt was an important artistic and publishing centre and had a significant influence on the nature of Flegel’s career.   Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601) was also working in the city around this time, illustrating treatises on the natural world with carefully painted and often illusionistic still life elements, considered by many to be the forerunners of the independent still life.  The botanical and zoological illustrations of Carolus Clusius (1525-1609) were also being published in Frankfurt around this time.  The Valckenborch and Flegel families seem to have enjoyed more than merely a professional relationship as Lucas’ brother, Marcus, became godfather to Flegel’s eldest son in 1594.  Among his pupils were his sons Friedrich and Jacob, as well as Jacob Marrell in 1627. Flegel died in Frankfurt in 1638.

The contemporary theorist Joachim van Sandrart noted that his still lifes were particularly popular in the Netherlands and his ability to paint quickly allowed him to keep up with the considerable demand for his works.  While still life subjects were his primary interest, he may also have painted portraits, as suggested by an engraving by Eberhard Kieser.

A very comparable painting in subject and composition is a still life with a roemer a pipe and tobacco in a niche is in the Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

Van Diemen, Berlin, circa 1920
Private collection
Sotheby’s New York 24 january 2002, where it was sold as lot 165 to Johnny van Haeften
His catalogue, Johnny van Haeften Thirteen, December 2003, no 11
Offered at TEFAF where it was acquired by the previous owner

Georg Flegel (1566-1638)
Price on request
ca. 1610-1630
oil on panel
20 x 15.2 cm

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