Continuing our look at plants on the ground, let’s look a bit further back into art history then we usually do here at UPR. In the 17th century, Dutch painter Otto Marseus von Schrieck wasn’t exactly doing urban plant research already, but he was doing something very new, which was to take the close-up, observant approach of the still life painter and direct it outside, and downwards, to create nature studies that were carefully arranged but were set on the dark, damp stage of the forest floor, as in the above Still Life with Amphibians and Insects (Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig). The result is called sottobosco painting (after the Italian for “undergrowth”), or in German, Waldstilleben (forest still life). And it’s mesmerizing.
I was alerted to the sottobosco genre and van Schrieck’s work, and their relevance to Urban Plant Research, by an art historian friend, Marisa Mandebach. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but I feel like his obsession with getting down low to the ground and carefully investigating every mushroom, flower, leaf, snake and toad really is akin to our approach to plant-art. Apparently, he was so passionate about closely observing critters and plants, which he cultivated in a pond behind his house built especially for this purpose, that friends nicknamed him the “Snuffelaer” (the sniffer or snuffler). When you look at the paintings, it’s easy to imagine him crawling around after his subjects, noting every feather, scale, leaf and petal. Check out A Forest Floor Still-Life (private collection, via Web Gallery of Art).
Even though I did say above that I don’t claim that a 17th century still life painter, even an innovative, plant-sniffing one, was already doing urban plant research, the poppies in the last two paintings I’ll share really do have shades of urban plant attitude, with their brambly leaves and brick-wall backdrops! Here’s one in the collection of the Met, Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles:
If you find these paintings as fascinating as I do, there’s an extensive list of websites and institutions where you can see them on the Otto Marseus von Schrieck page of the Art Encyclopedia. The German Wikipedia page on van Schrieck is also pretty useful, informing me that some of his sottobosco wonders reside right near me at the Jagdschloss Grünewald in Berlin and the national museum in Schwerin.
I have yet to find out if the paintings near me are currently on view (for those in the northeast US, the ones in Boston and New York, sadly, are not), but I hope to see them sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll be curious to hear what you think of this little plant art detour.