François HABERT : Still life with pieces of silverware

Oil on canvas.
Signed and dated at bottom left on the entablature: Franciscus. Habert. f. / 1652.

135 cm x 165 cm.

Provenance: Bought 15th May 1847 in London from Mawson's by the family of the current owners.

The importance of the place held by François Habert at the heart of 17th-century still-life painting is demonstrated by the number of paintings, almost all signed and dated, which have come to us.

There is however very little information available about his life and his name only appears twice in written documents. Once in the inventory of Philippe de Champaigne, "Une Guirlande de Fleurs du sieur Habert" ("A Garland of Flowers by Mr Habert"), a painting on canvas purchased for the considerable sum at the time of 100 livres. It appears a second time in the inventory of the paintings of Monsieur Charles Tardif, secretary to Maréchal de Boufflers, for a painting of flowers that was apparently purchased in 1712 from Monsieur de Catinat (M. Faré, Le grand siècle de la nature morte en France, Paris, 1974, p. 275).

His first works, dating from the 1640s, show how strongly he was immersed in the group of Dutch and Flemish artists who were then working in Paris. Having probably trained with the Flemish artist Balthasar van der Ast, Habert is in the first place receptive to the influence of Jan Fyt, in particular in his rendering of fruit. We can also notice in his early paintings the influence of Jean-Michel Picart, with whom he has sometimes been confused. It seems he also collaborated on several works with Jacques Hupin, in particular the "Plateau de Fruits, fleurs, orfèvreries et tapis sur une table" ("Tray of fruit, flowers, silverware and carpet on a table", see C. Salvi, D'après nature: la nature morte en France au XVIIème siècle, Tournai, 2000, p. 113, image reproduced).

But it is above all Jan Davidsz. de Heem who will be his principal master. De Heem is, along with Willem Kalf and Abraham van Beijeren, one of the main proponents of a trend in still-life painting that emerges in the middle of the 17th century, characterised by opulence and elegance. The accumulation of sumptuous objects in a theatrical miseen-scène allows painters to demonstrate their technical virtuosity. Particular attention is given to the play of light on the various surfaces represented: porcelain, silverware, wine glasses, rich fabrics and carpets, flowers and fruits, laid out with great attention to their arrangement.

Our painting can be considered as a typical example of the baroque and harmonious luxuriance that characterises Habert's work. Claudia Salvi contrasts the notion of "restrained splendour" according to the expression of Claus Grimm with regard to the "master of Antwerp" (de Heem), with the explosive brilliance developed by Habert.

Each object "bursts forth" in its own right, maintaining its autonomy in a very carefully composed chaos. Thus Claudia Salvi highlights the image of the lemon with part of its rind peeled away, a detail common to several of Habert's works, for example the "Nature morte au jeu de cartes" ("Still life with card game"), c. 1643 (see C. Salvi, D'après nature: la nature morte en France au XVIIème siècle, Tournai, 2000, p. 113, image reproduced). The piece of fruit seems to stand out from the rest of the composition.

The vase is especially emblematic of the rich silverware of the 17th century. A very popular theme as a decorative element, we can compare it to the luxurious piece that features on one of the Gobelins tapestries in the Les Maisons Royales/Les Mois series created for Louis XIV, based on Lebrun's patterns ("Mois de Septembre", now held by the Château de Chambord).

While de Heem adds a landscape, Habert generally prefers a dark background, thus marking the limits of this influence. It is not however completely rejected, since we see this Italianate landscape effect on a work dated to 1649, "Le dessert" ("The Dessert", see M. Faré, Le grand siècle de la nature morte en France, Paris, 1974, p. 277, image reproduced), and whose luxuriance is similar to our painting.

The horizontal arrangement of objects that Habert prefers is characteristic of the French school of still-life painting of the time. We can also note a connection to the painters of the Bergamo school in its use of musical instruments, the whole conveying an impression of abundant elegance.
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