The still life is not as common a subject in the early history of printmaking as one might think. I was reminded of this fact while helping Sona Johnston, then Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, make print selections for The Art of Still Life from The Baltimore Museum of Art, an exhibition that traveled to museums around Maryland in 2007 and 2010. There were few examples of seventeenth-century still life prints in the BMA’s collection, though happily we did find Theodor Matham’s 1622 engraving Vanitas. Here, in the composition’s foreground, one sees an assortment of carefully arranged and meticulously rendered objects, including a book of music and several instruments. The prominent location of the plaque at center, showing the word “Vanitas” topped by a winged skull, reminds us that music, like all earthly enjoyments, offers only fleeting pleasure in the face of our mortality.
Given the relative rarity of seventeenth-century still life prints, it was with great excitement that in 2011 the Museum acquired Wenceslaus Hollar’s Murex haustellum from an untitled series of 38 shells etched by the Bohemian artist in c. 1646. Unlike Matham, who placed his shells in an elaborate and iconographically significant setting, Hollar presents all his shells in the same straightforward fashion. By isolating the shells against plain backgrounds, Hollar draws attention to their intrinsic beauty, focusing on their distinctive silhouettes and textures. Each shell is to scale, with every bump and ridge on its exterior rendered in minute detail; one imagines the artist scrutinizing and marveling at the murex haustellum while slowly rotating it in his hand. Hollar’s etchings lack accompanying text, distinguishing them from scientific illustrations of the time, prints in which the imagery would be supplemented with the Latin name of each specimen, if not other relevant scientific information and a plate number.
Although the murex haustellum is readily available today, it was a rarity in the seventeenth century. Brought to Europe via maritime trade, such shells were collected both as exotic objects and scientific curiosities. They were considered exemplary items to include in the compendium of knowledge known as a wunderkammer (“hall of wonders”), of which Baltimoreans are fortunate to have a recreation at The Walters Art Museum; there is also the wunderkammer-inspired installation An Archaeology of Knowledge by the contemporary American artist Mark Dion at the Brody Learning Commons at The Johns Hopkins University. As we know from a 1656 inventory of his collection, the Dutch artist Rembrandt owned shells, one of which most likely served as a model for the singular etching and drypoint The Shell (1650). In etching his series of shells, it seems that Hollar worked from a particular collection, though whose it was we do not know.
Hollar’s and Rembrandt’s shell etchings lead us to one other still life print: a 2002 etching by the contemporary French printmaker Erik Desmazières entitled Register and Shells that is a promised gift to the Museum. Desmazières is an artist who is steeped in the history of printmaking—he is a regular visitor to the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris—and over the course of his long career has explored various art historical themes in his work (including the wunderkammer). In Register and Shells, we see a piece of coral and two shells placed on and adjacent to a well-worn tome, their inclusion paying homage to the exquisitely etched creations of his seventeenth-century predecessors.