Why early modern European artists were obsessed with seashells

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Mussels have long been valued by societies around the world for their diversity, beauty, and luminosity. Testimony from the Mesolithic Age shows that seashells were the first objects clearly used as personal decoration, and in more recent history seashells have been a crucial inspiration for artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Clara Peeters.

In Conchophilia: Shells, Art and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe edited by Princeton University Press, Marisa Anne Bass, Anne Goldgar, Hanneke Grootenboer, Claudia Swan, and other art historians examine why seashells appeared so frequently in cabinets of curiosities, paintings, prints, furniture, vessels, and other arts of Holland, Germany. France, Italy, England and other areas of Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. The exquisitely illustrated, thought-provoking book explores the intricate origins, multiple uses, and key role of seashells in shaping the visual and aesthetic culture of the era.

Utrecht Manufactory, Nautilis shell with gold-plated silver fittings, 1602.27.9 x 16.8 x 10.8 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Prized mussels came from the expanding global trade routes and colonization networks of the Europeans, which suddenly made mussels from distant lands such as Indonesia, the Cape of Good Hope and the Antilles accessible to avid collectors. For the wealthy aristocrats and elite citizens who coveted them, exotic seashells were sensual, fashionable status items that aroused astonishment at the generosity of nature and God’s enormous creative power.

Most Europeans never saw the crustaceans and mollusks that originally occupied their shells, and few were concerned with the places and people who supplied them. but Conchophilia stresses that the mussel trade and slavery were closely related. “The European trade in the east obtained the cowrie shells in order to operate the slave trade,” writes Swan. In addition, enslaved humans and servants did much of the work that grenades required before they fell into the hands of collectors.

“Somebody collected the seashells, scrubbed them and cleaned up their original inhabitants, and maybe someone polished and even carved them before they were shipped halfway around the world,” continues Swan. Shells found on the beach were often damaged by sun exposure, waves, and sand, which meant that perfect (and sometimes poisonous) specimens often had to be caught alive and in risky conditions.

Although most Europeans ignored this phase in the life of their mussels, the process is mentioned in a hand-colored engraving and a frontispiece from “The Ambrose Curiosity Cabinet” (1705), in which two black figures – one just a small child – collect rare mussels the floor in front of an elaborately designed chamber, while European men at a large table inside sort and speculate on these imported luxury goods.

J. de Later after Jan Goeree, “Frontispiece”, in Georgius Eberhard Rumphius, “D’Ambonische rariteikamer”, (1705), hand-colored engraving, 39.5 x 25.7 cm (Universiteit van Amsterdam)

A fascinating essay by Stephanie S. Dickey examines Rembrandt’s own obsession with seashells and the parallels between the seashell and print collector’s markets of the day. Rembrandt produced three versions of “The Shell (Conus Marmoreus)” (1650), an etching of an Indo-Pacific snail. A few years earlier he had paid the highest price for a clam recorded in 40 years of Amsterdam auctions and part of his personal collection of naturalia. As filigree multiples, seashells and prints fetched similar prices, and both required special containers – cabinets or albums – to store them. Sharing these objects with visitors provided “an experience that was both privileged and intimate, and often both tactile and visual,” explains Dickey.

As with other popular collectibles such as coins, china, and stones, some of the attraction of the seashells came from the pleasure of touch. When handled, some mussels produced soft, glowing skin and even human orifices; especially anthropomorphic species appeared in the works of art of the era as allusions to male and female genitalia. Shells and bodies also collided in elaborate drinking vessels, which often showed idealized nudes, mermaids and deities of love in their gold and silver mountings. But in the end, the coveted shells of Europeans were “a fragment of a previous life, an architectural holdover that outlived its former architect,” notes Bass. The rich science in this book is well worth exploring.

Andries van Buysen (after Romeyn de Hooghe), “Visitors to the Natural History Cabinet of Levinus Vincent in Haarlem” (around 1706), copper engraving, 22 x 31.5 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Levinus Vincent, “Shell Cabinet (Tab. II)” from “Wondertooneel der Nature” (1706-15), Amsterdam
Dirck van Rijswijck, “Tableau with Flower Still Life” (1662), black marble inlaid with engraved mother-of-pearl and brecciated marble, 15.9 x 9.8 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Balthasar van der Ast, “Still life with fruits and flowers”, (1620-21), oil on panel, 39.2 x 69.8 cm (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Conchophilia: Shells, Art and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe by Marisa Anne Bass, Anne Goldgar, Hanneke Grootenboer and Claudia Swan is published by Princeton University Press and is available on Bookstore.

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