Works of art made of animal and vegetable materials, like expensive woods, exotic nuts, shells, ivory, tortoise etc. held an important place in many of the 17th and 18th Century collections. Costly shells from exotic countries were engraved or inserted in precious works of art. Dutch artists enjoyed reputation as shell-workers.
The most famous mother-of-pearl worker of the second half of the 17th Century was Cornelis Bellekin (worked c.1650-1700). Although Bellekin was already famous in his own time, almost nothing is known about him today. Traveller Z.C. von Uffenbach says in his account of his 1711 trip to Amsterdam about the master: C. Bellekins welcher der beste perlenmutter schneider alhier gewesen. In 18th Century sale catalogues he is always mentioned with the utmost respect. He is for example called Celeber Artifex.
Shells by Cornelis Bellekin formed part of the famous collections of Petronella de la Court (1624-1707), Simon Schijnvoet (1652-1727) and Albertus Seba (1665-1736). The latter is known to have owned at least two nautili and 12 shells engraved by Bellekin. They are depicted life-size in the catalogue (Thesaurus) of Seba's entire collection of naturalia which was published in four volumes between 1734 and 1765. The present shell also formed part of the Seba collection. It is depicted in volume III of the catalogue. And is described as follows: Drie kindertjes dansende op het geluit, dat een Bos-god en een Bos-Godinne op hunne instrumenten maken.
In 1736 Seba died and in 1752 his entire collection was sold by auction. The above mentioned shells were probably all included in this sale. Toppers amongst these shells were an extremely large shell with the Flight into Egypt, and a Hunting Scene with King William. The first was sold for f 120, - to a certain Sluyter and the latter for f 80,- to Mr. Oudaen. The smaller shells were sold for amounts between f 24,- and f 31,-. What exact price the shell with the depiction of the Bos-god en een Bos-Godinne fetched and who became the new owner is unknown because of the limited descriptions in the sale catalogue. Fact is that the shell appeared again in the 1767 sale of the collection of Arnoud Leers as number 1425: Een niet minder zeer fraaye dito als vooren, met speeldende Bosch-Nymphen, een vluchtende satyr en drie dansende cupidoos &c zijnde de weerga door denzelven, followed by a reference to Seba's catalogue. The shell was offered together with a second specimen from the collection Seba. For f 10,- they both came in the possession of a certain Nieuhoff.
In his article on Dutch mother-of-pearl workers H.W. van Seters mentions 17 works by Cornelis Bellekin in several collections in the Netherlands and abroad. He discovered references of c. 50 more works by Bellekin in sales catalogues which appeared between 1694 en 1943. The scenes depicted on these works can be divided into the following categories: a) decorative motives such as leafs, flowers birds etc., b) portraits, c) rejoicing farmers, d) Biblical scenes and e) mythological scenes, including scenes with children, putti, bacchants etc. The present shell clearly belongs to the latter category.
The shell shows certain elements which are typical for Cornelis Bellekin. In the first place the combination of the engraved landscapes in which figures appear in relief. In 17th and 18th Century sales catalogues this technique is described as uit en inwendig gesneden or op en ingewerkt. The engraving was done with a burin and blackened with wax afterwards. In the foreground free-standing plants are engraved of a type typical for Bellekin. The signature c.b.f. (Cornelis Bellekin Fecit) is known from a shell with the depiction of Andromeda Tied to a Rock from the collection of Jhr. Mr. L. Ch van Loon, and at least four other examples are known which bear this signature.
Exh.Cat. De wereld binnen handbereik, Nederlandse kunst- en rariteitenverzamelingen, 1585-1735, Amsterdam, Amsterdams Historisch Museum, 1992.
Sale Catalogue Seba, catalogus van de uitmuntende cabinetten, met allerly soorten van ongemeene schoone gepolyste hoorns, dublet-schelpen/... nagelaten door wylen den heere Albertus Seba, Amsterdam, 1752. (University Library Amsterdam; HS XXIII C3).
Sale Arnoud leers, Amsterdam, 1767, Catalogue systematique d'un magnifique cabinet de très belles coquillages .../ Friedrich Christian Meuschen - Amsterdam, 1767 (University Library, Amsterdam, Artis Library, Dept. of Malacology: d. 18: 1).
Seba, Albertus, lucopletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et iconibus artificiossimis expressio, per univ. physices historiam. ex toto terrarum orbe collegit, digessit, descripsit. A.S. - Amsteldaemi, part III, Amsteldaemi Apud Janssonio-Waesbergio 1759, Tab.LXXXV (part I, 1734, part II, 1735, part IV, 1765).
Seters, H.W. van, 'Oud-Nederlandse Parelmoerkunst, Het Werk van Leden der Familie Belquin, Parelmoergraveurs en Schilders in de 17e eeuw' in: Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 9, 1958.
Uffenbach, Z.C. von, Merkwürdige Reisen durch Niedersachsen, Holland und Engelland III, Frankfurt, 1753/54, p.543.