This is a typical example of the small but exquisitely executed still-life paintings which were Adriaen Coorte’s specialism. He used a dark background and dramatic lighting to highlight the contrast between different shapes and surfaces, such as the translucence of ripe gooseberries and the musty sheen on the plum.
The high degree of precision gives the impression of a realistic scene – you might assume it has been painted from life. But this can’t have been the case, because the food depicted here would not have been available at the same time. Asparagus spears are cut in May; strawberries usually ripen from June; gooseberries are picked in early July and plums in August.
Compositions which belied seasonal availability in this way were common in Dutch still-life and flower paintings, however. There was a long tradition of artists working from studio drawings rather than painting direct from nature.
Adriaen Coorte is one of those unusual artists whose work was forgotten after his death and then rediscovered centuries later. This is a typical example of the small, exquisitely executed still-life paintings in which he specialised, and which only started to be appreciated again in the early twentieth century. The National Gallery owns just this example and acquired it only recently, in 2015.
The formula Coorte followed most often – as here – was to depict fruit, nuts, vegetables or shells set on the edge of a stone shelf. He used a dark background and dramatic lighting to create strong highlights and deep shadows, an effect which emphasises the contrast between the smooth finish and sharp edges of the stone and the softer curves of his subject. He was highly skilled at rendering the textures of natural surfaces, like the translucence of ripe gooseberries, the tiny pocks in the skins of the strawberries and the musty sheen on the plum. The curled, bug-nibbled edges of the leaves are also depicted with painstaking delicacy.
This high degree of precision gives the impression of a realistic scene – you might assume it has been painted from life. But this can’t have been the case, because the food depicted would not have been available at the same time. Asparagus spears are cut in May; strawberries (these are small wild ones) can ripen as early as May, but June is much more likely; gooseberries are picked from early July; and it’s very unlikely that you would have found a ripe plum in seventeenth-century Holland before August.
Compositions which belied seasonal availability in this way were common in Dutch still-life and flower paintings, however. There was a long tradition of artists working from studio drawings and oil studies, and they were adept at reusing the same references. Indeed Coorte painted what seems to be the same bunch of asparagus several times – there is a version in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, for example – and the bowl of strawberries appears in at least two other pictures.
This particular combination is unique in Coorte’s work. There may be no significance in his choice other than the aesthetic appeal of the different textures, and the strong, clear red and green colour contrasts. But a neat sequence does emerge from his selection: asparagus spears shoot directly from the earth, strawberries grow a few centimetres above it, gooseberry bushes mature at about one metre high and plums hang highest of all. Perhaps in his highly controlled, pared down way, Coorte was hinting at the rich variety which emerged from the market gardens and orchards of the Netherlands from soil to tree between May and August each year.
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