Dirk Valkenburg painted still lifes in the manner of his master Jan Weenix, poultry yards and a handful of portraits but is most known today for a series of landscapes produced during and after a visit to the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1706/07. Valkenburg’s voyage to South America was undertaken at the behest of the wealthy Amsterdam town secretary, Jonas Witsen, for whom Valkenburg drew and painted scenes of Witsen’s three plantations as well as the local flora and fauna. Due to an illness, the artist’s visit to Surinam was cut short and he probably returned to Amsterdam, where he would remain for the rest of his life, with the autumn fleet of 1707.
This intriguing study is among a small group of surviving works that were painted while the artist was resident in Surinam. It is most closely comparable to a pair of somewhat larger studies of fruit on canvas and panel, the latter of which was formerly signed and dated 1707, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper (see Tableaux flamands et hollandaise du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 1987, pp. 62-63, nos. 56-57, illustrated). The present painting and the pair in Quimper appear to have served as source material for compositions Valkenburg developed upon his return to Amsterdam. Both the lizard found in one of the Quimper paintings and the sprig of nutmeg(?) and black bean(?) at lower left in the present sheet reappear in a slightly different arrangement in one of a pair of paintings signed and dated 1707 (fig. 1; sold Christie’s, New York, 19 January 1982, lot 137).
The unusual shape of the present study is most likely the result of damage it sustained while in transit with the artist. In an effort to salvage what remained, Valkenburg probably glued it down to the present wooden support. In its current form, the sheet is inscribed with the numbers ‘5’ through ‘8’, which no doubt would have corresponded to an index of the depicted plant species. One can easily imagine that, in its original state, the left side of the sheet contained further studies of fruits annotated with the numbers ‘1’ through ‘4’, possibly including at lower left the long pepper found in the afore-mentioned painting sold in 1982.
Valkenburg’s contract with Witsen stipulated that the artist was not allowed to sell any of the works produced on his trip to anyone other than Witsen and that Valkenburg was prevented from working for anyone else while there. Indeed, Witsen’s appetite for Valkenburg’s works is indicated by the inclusion of no fewer than eighteen paintings by the artist in Witsen’s estate sale held in Amsterdam on 31 March 1717. Of this group, only two, a pair of works described simply as ‘Eenige Vrugten’ (‘Some fruits’), could plausibly be associated with the present painting (see G. Hoet, Catalogus of naamlyst van schilderyen met derzelver pryzen, I, The Hague, 1752, p. 210, nos. 115-116). However, they brought the comparatively good price of 28 guilders, which would suggest that they were instead finished compositions. The painting may alternatively be tentatively identified as one of the ‘Twee modelletjes van vrugten’ (‘Two studies of fruit’) listed in the inventory of Valkenburg’s estate drawn up following his death. Had Valkenburg retained the study as source material, he not only would have been compliant with the terms of his contract with Witsen but its retention would further explain the recurrence of certain details in his subsequent works.