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The Secret Language of Still Life

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Fleurs dans une carafe de cristal placé sur un piédestal en pierre avec une libellule Mignon Abraham (1637-1679) Paris, musée du Louvre

Abraham Mignon Flowers in a Crystal Vase on a Stone Pedestal, with a Dragonfly, n.d. Oil on canvas 34 5/8 x 26 1/2 inches Musée du Louvre, R. F.

A centerpiece of the exhibition American Encounters: The Simple Pleasure of Still Life,   Abraham Mignon’s Flowers in a Crystal Vase, Standing on a Pedestal with a Dragonfly is full of gorgeous flowers, vegetables, and fruits, as well as a host of intricately painted insects.  In addition to being a celebration of life’s bounty and beauty, the painting exhibits a balance of elements that express both the fleeting nature of life and its luxuries as well as the promise of resurrection or rebirth.

Viewers in Mignon’s time would have been able to “read” the flowers depicted in his painting in a way that modern viewers cannot.  Certain flowers were associated with specific symbols or places, and other elements in the painting likewise held a symbolic meaning.

Below are a few of the symbolic meanings and associations you can find in this glorious painting:

tulipsTulips were often signs of wealth and luxury.  Such luxuries are both celebrated here and combined with a warning as to their impermanent nature.In the 1640s, after the financial speculation over tulips was over, one bulb of the Semper Augustus tulip (red and white striped similar to the ones shown here) were worth three times average annual wage in Holland at the time, potentially $120,000 today. Tulips with a white base and striped colors, known as “broken,” “feathered,” or “flamed,” were the most prized. The breaks resulted from a virus spread to the tulips by aphids.  As seventeenth-century nurserymen did not know about the virus, the reproduction of broken tulips was mysterious, adding to their rarity and expense.

waterWheat often evoked the bread of the Eucharist.

Water drops were often a sign of life’s fleeting nature.

snailPeonies, exotic flowers from Asia, were associated with trade, exploration, and wealth.

Snails were sometimes considered symbols of humility as they made their way along the ground, but can also be seen as signs of impending destruction for the plants present.

Poppies, even the ornamental ones such as these, were associated with sleep or death.

butterflyButterflies, located throughout this composition, were often seen as representing transformation and Christ’s resurrection.

caterpillarCaterpillars, like butterflies, referenced resurrection and transformation, but here they are also among the hordes of insects ready to devour the floral luxuries in the vase.

The dragonfly is one of the insects intended to remind viewers of the end of life, as it waits to prey upon the smaller insects below. The spider in the center of the bouquet is a similar reminder.

Untitled-1The iris, with its three large leaves, represents the trinity.

morning gloryMorning glories (or perhaps bindweed) tended to be associated with the light of truth, as they open in the light of day. Yet they also mark the passing of time, closing with the fall of night.

Oranges were a sign of trade, exploration, and luxury. Here the orange blooms, begins to fruit, and is fully ripe—collapsing the many stages of its life cycle into one image.

hydrangeaFlowers with drooping heads, such as the hydrangeas pictured here, frequently embodied the brief nature of both life and its luxuries.

Thorny plants often evoked the crown of thorns, and roses were associated with the Virgin Mary.

lightLight shining into or reflected from outside often evoked the light of God, although here it also may offer a glimpse into Mignon’s studio.

The dianthus or carnation was often seen as a symbol of man’s interference with nature, but could also be seen as an emblem of scientific developments in botany.

blackberriesThe blackberries are in various states of ripening, marking the passing of time.

Now that you are educated in the secret language of still life painting, be sure to visit Crystal Bridges this summer and get a closer look at this and the other still lifes represented in this beautiful exhibition.  And while you’re here, try your hand at creating and drawing your own still life in our still life studio, located just outside the American Encounters gallery.  The studio offers a host of classic still life materials you can choose from and arrange as you like on a pedestal.  Next, light your still life with the lamps provided, and start drawing. There’s no better way to truly experience the simple pleasure of still life!

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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