Van Schrieck and his dear little monsters.
Most painters of the Dutch 17th century specialised in one genre - good for production and business. For Otto Marseus van Schrieck that was painting insects, snails, amphibians and reptiles in an extremely detailed way. According to his contemporaries, the man was truly obsessed by "the little creatures" on the forest floor.
Details of van Schrieck paintings. The dark damp forest floor in a mix of realism and fantasy.
A returning theme full of symbolism: the snake attacking the butterfly.
Like many painters of northern Europe van Schrieck had travelled to Italy to study the great classic examples that inspired the Renaissance. In Rome he was part of a flamboyant artistic colony of Dutch and Flemish painters, joyously celebrating art and all the pleasures of life. Not unusual that their Bacchanalia were ended by the police, or by being thrown out of the pub the hard way.
It's there in the south he saw snakes and lizards, animals you rarely encounter in Holland and certainly not in Amsterdam. It's there he got his nickname, because his fellow painters noticed he was closely watching these exotics, truly sniffing at them. Hence "the Sniffer", in Dutch "de Snuffelaer".
In his paintings van Schrieck was doing something very new. Observing closely the largely unnoticed life of the little creatures. Then staging scenes and painting it all in mysterious close-ups. He became the founder of the so-called "sottobosco" style of painting, after the Italian for "undergrowth".
Nowadays van Schrieck does not ring a bell for most people. But during his lifetime the Italian nobility loved his paintings, and they were copied by many contemporaries.
When years later the Tuscan prince Cosimo de Medici visited Amsterdam, the first painter he wanted to meet was "Signore Ottone Marcellis", as the Italians called him. He directly purchased three paintings for exorbitant prices.
Back in Amsterdam van Schrieck also had a place outside the city walls where he had enough space to keep and study his "dear little monsters". Living material he sometimes even integrated literally in his work. Like real butterfly wings.
Although van Schrieck did not leave any writings, we know he worked closely with scientific nature researchers of the time, like Jan Swammerdam. Discovering for example that flies and caterpillars did not come into being spontaneously in rotting meat or fruit, as was the common belief, but were the result of a full and fascinating circle of life.
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