A forest floor with butterflies and lizards confirms Withoos's status as a northern still-life painter par excellence. Typically set at the base of a tree trunk, these compositions teem with wild plants, reptiles and insects comingling on a forest floor. Pushed up against the picture plane, this microcosm of activity is juxtaposed with a hilly landscape or sand dune slightly visible in the background. An equally myopic approach to nature was adopted by the painter's master, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, with whom Withoos traveled to Italy from 1648-53. (See, for example, van Schrieck's Forest floor dated 1673 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.) In Rome they joined the Schildersbent, an informal society of Dutch and Flemish painters that flourished from c. 1620 to 1720. Among Withoos's Italian patrons was Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici.
Withoos's Forest floor with butterflies and lizards, a mature, independent work dated from the 1660s, was painted in the Netherlands decades after his Italian sojourn. While the ongoing influence of van Schrieck is visible in the picture's meticulously rendered fauna and flora, its cool colors and atmospheric sfumatura recall sixteenth-century Venetian conventions, which Withoos would have appropriated in Italy. However, the painter's unique use of alternating bands of light and shadow, which here terminate in the left background in a series of sunlit hills à la Roman campagna, appears throughout his oeuvre, principally as a Baroque device of leading the viewer seamlessly into the composition. See, for example, the aforementioned Thistles and butterflies with a landscape background in the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
We are grateful to Mr. Fred Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague, for confirming the attribution of the present painting to Matthias Withoos on the basis of a transparency (written communication, 7 November 2004). Mr. Meijer dates the work to the 1660s and notes a similarity with the aforementioned still life in the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham, England.
Christie's holds the world record for a painting by Withoos sold at auction (Christie's, London, 24 April 1998, lot 72; £78,500 = $131,468).