One of very few surviving miniatures by the elder Hoefnagel drawn at the beginning of his period of service at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The compact dimensions and richness of decoration of the drawings in the group, together with the sometimes slightly esoteric subject matter, suggest that they were made as prize objects for the Emperor's private cabinet or that or one of his close courtiers.
Georg Hoefnagel was born in Antwerp, the son of a rich diamond dealer. his early career was spent following his father's business interests across Europe, notably in France and Andalucia. A self-confessed artistic autodidact he seems to have drawn instinctively throughout his travels, building an 'archive' of topographical images that would form the basis for the drawings he supplied to Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg to illustrate their Civitates Orbis Terrarum, a compendium of views, plans and notices on the cities of the world published in Antwerp in five volumes between 1572 and 1598 (for example a view of Montlhéry sold Christie's, London, 5 July 2005, lot 130). He was again in Antwerp in 1570, and may have taken lessons from the miniaturist and painter Hans Bol after the latter's arrival in the city after the sack of Malines in 1572. The arrangement of the present drawing with a central scene within a border filled with natural history specimens shows it to be heir to such drawings as the Landscape with a Sacrifice of Isaac, within a decorative border of plants and animals by Hans Bol, sold Sotheby's, New York, 23 January 2001, lot 108. Hoefnagel was again abroad in 1577, and spent some time in Italy. In Rome he joined the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The influence of the miniatures of Giulio Clovio, who was part of Farnese's household at this time, can also be seen in the present drawing, and indeed Hoefnagel was offered a position as Clovio's successor shortly before he left Rome in the Spring of 1578.
In that year he moved to Bavaria and began to fulfil a number of comissions at the Ducal court.
His most significant step however was taken in April 1590 when he negotiated with the Emperor Rudolf II to enter Imperial service. In 1591, the year of the present drawing, he began his series of miniatures for the Schriftmusterbuch (Handwriting Book) of the Imperial Secretary Georg Bocsksay, described by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann as 'a masterpiece in his oeuvre and a key work in Rudolfine art' (T. DaCosta Kaufmann, The School of Prague, Painting at the Court of Rudolf II, Chicago, 1988, no. 9.5).
Closely comparable to the present drawing, and also dating to 1591 are a pair of Allegories of the Shortness of Life now in the Mus©e de Beaux-Arts, Lille, in which butterflies, moths, caterpillars, snails and various blooms suround hourglasses surmounted by winged skulls 9T. DaCosta Kaufmann, op. cit., no. 9.2). The arrangment of a central vignette set within a still-life panel is also found in an Allegory of Life and Death formerly in the Schilling Collection and now at the British Museum (inv. no. 1997-7-12-56; R. Schilling and P. Pieper, ed., Die von Edmund Schilling gesammelten Zeichnungen, [privately printed], 1982, no. 35), and another so similar in decorative framework and dimensions that it may have been a pendant to the present drawing, sold Beaussant and Lefèvre, Paris, 18 December 2002, lot 20.