This panel can justly be considered among Frans Francken II’s rarest works. At the publication of her 1956 study of Flemish 17th century painters of nature morte, Edith Greindl believed this still life to be unique within Francken’s oeuvre. Following the discovery of the existence of a breakfast piece in a Spanish private collection (U. Härting, op. cit., 1983, no. A351), this is no longer considered to be the case, but the present picture, authenticated by Ursula Härting after first hand inspection, remains hitherto the only signed example of an autonomous still life by the artist.
The younger Francken is probably best known as an exponent of the phenomenon of ‘cabinet painting’ in 17th-century Antwerp. Miniature representations of allegorical, biblical and historical subjects, cabinet pictures were manufactured in large quantities across the Southern Netherlands in order to meet the voracious needs of the burgeoning art market. However, beginning in 1610, and presumably motivated by the collections of his clientele, Francken became engaged in the development of a new subgenre of still life: the painted cabinet of curiosities. The cabinet of a collector (Royal Collection, London), dated 1617, is one such picture (fig. 1). It centers on a sprawling assemblage of shells, coins, oil paintings and other small collectible items typical of the collector's cabinet and is characterized by a pronounced naturalism. A fascinating record of the nature of collecting in the Netherlands in the 17th century, these painted cabinets are also representative of the strength of Francken’s interest in the still-life genre during the 1610s.
The abbreviated signature on the present picture permits a dating to approximately 1610-1615, which accords with the years during which Francken was producing the bulk of his 'cabinet' pictures. Though abbreviated, it can be interpreted to mean: Den ionghen Frans Francken fecit (The young Frans Francken made it). ‘The young Frans Francken’ indicates that the work was executed while his father, Francken I (c.1542-1616), was still living, namely, prior to 1616. Moreover, the panel is stylistically compatible with the chromatic evolution that took place in Francken’s oeuvre from c. 1610 onwards, defined by a much brighter handling of light and the adoption of a tonality made up of both bright and cool contrasting colors. Here, white highlights on the glass imply the reflection of a window and, with it, the existence of a room beyond the picture plane; the bright orange of both the apricots and the butterfly interplays harmoniously with the cooler, darker green and grey of the leaves and the pewter dish.
According to Ursula Härting, Francken’s debt to Clara Peeters, his contemporary in Antwerp, is suggested by the trompe l’oeil rendering of the signature as though carved into the stone, a conceit that occurs frequently in Peeters’ own work. Francken may also have drawn influence from Peeters' still lifes in the use of a low viewpoint, which serves to create a sense of intimacy and immediacy in such works.