This spectacular flowerpiece, which is beautifully preserved and has never before been published or publicly exhibited, showcases Mignon’s extraordinary talent for still-life painting, a genre to which he devoted all of his artistic energies. The work was executed in Utrecht after 1672, during the artist’s maturity - when he ‘regained his former freedom and brilliance’ (M. Kraemer-Noble, Abraham Mignon 1640-1679, Leigh-on-Sea, 1973, p. 11) - and shows the full impact Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s influence.
The son of shopkeepers in Frankfurt, Mignon was baptised in the Calvinist church on 21 June 1640. When his parents moved to Wetzlar nine years later, Abraham was placed in the care of Jacob Marrel, an art dealer and still life painter who assumed the boy’s artistic training. Impressed with his pupil’s prodigious abilities, Marrel asked Mignon to instruct his step-daughter, Maria Sibylla Merian, in still life painting. By 1664, Marrel had relocated to Utrecht, de Heem’s birthplace, taking Mignon with him, where they were both registered at the Saint Luke Guild. Fortuitously, de Heem, who had moved to Antwerp in 1636, spent the years 1669 to 1672 in his native Utrecht (before returning to Antwerp), which had a decisive effect on Mignon’s artistic development. In 1675, Mignon married Maria Willaerts, cousin of the marine painter Cornelis Willaerts. Mignon died only a few years later, aged 39, and was buried in Utrecht on 27 March 1679. Despite his brief career, Mignon was prolific, specialising in forest-floors and bouquets of flowers placed on stone ledges or within niches, of which this painting is a superb example.
De Heem’s influence on Mignon is evident in the crystalline clarity of the drawing, in the rich, carefully orchestrated palette and in the use of a dramatically dark background in this work. In contrast to the more manicured bouquets of the previous generation of still life painters, which remained relatively contained within their architectural settings, Mignon’s flower arrangement explodes in all directions, unrestrained by the glass vase or stone niche, with some flowers even dandling precariously over the edge of the stone ledge. In addition to the feeling of movement created by the frenetic arrangement of the flowers, the work is teeming with insect life, with beetles scuttling across the stone ledge, caterpillars crawling along storks and an army of ants crawling over the white peony at the centre of the composition. Mignon has instilled order in this apparent chaos, however, through the considered arrangement of his palette: the red memorial day peony drooping over the ledge lower left is balanced by the spectacular red poppy at upper centre, which crowns the composition, while two tulips counter-balance one another on the central axis. The painting’s beautiful state of preservation allows for a full appreciation of the astonishing verisimilitude that Mignon achieved in his works: from the different textures and characteristics of the individual flowers, to the minutely-observed insects and the droplets of water on the petals and ledge. The rendering of different materials reached its zenith in the work of de Heem and Mignon in the second half of the seventeenth century, and was only rivalled much later in the works of Jan van Huysum (1682-1749).
Mignon regularly repeated specific motifs in his still lifes with only slight variations from painting to painting. Other versions of flowerpieces crowned with a red poppy are in the Louvre, Paris; the Mauritshuis, The Hague; and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Mignon’s minutely detailed paintings were much sought after in his day and throughout the eighteenth century. The Elector of Saxony owned thirteen Mignons, which later passed into the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. His works were also acquired by Louis XIV of France.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred Meijer for his thoughts on this painting, which he has dated to after 1672, on the basis of photographs.