Willem Grasdorp is a rare Late Baroque Dutch still life painter. Besides for his excellent paintings he has remained famous for Arnold Houbraken’s description of the way in which he was bullied at the age of 19 by his Master, the German still-life painter Ernst Stuven.
Our painting testifies of the interest around 1700 for Italianate park landscapes and exotic fruits. Strange-looking, fascinating and rare animals that lived and still live in Holland enhance the alien atmosphere: a green sand lizard and a European rhinoceros beetle. A garden statue representing Hercules slaying the Lernean Hydra complements the Classical, Italianate perception.
About Willem Grasdorp I
Zwolle 1678 – 1723 Amsterdam
Excellent, but rare painter of flower and of fruit still lifes.
A Dutch draughtsman active at the middle of the 18th century had the same name as our painter and is therefore called Willem II.
Our Willem was the son of the landscape and town view painter Jan Grasdorp (Zwolle 1642 – 1686 Zwolle). Willem started studying painting under his father, who died in 1686 when Willem was only eight years old. It is not known with whom he continued his studies. In 1697 Willem was inscribed as a pupil of the important still life painter Ernst Stuven in Amsterdam. He was so severely mistreated by his master that he had to be released by the bailiff’s men.
Poor Grasdorp, who had not even studied for a complete year under Stuven, was stylistically strongly influenced by him. He became a good still life painter and remained apparently active in Amsterdam, where he died at the age of 44. He was buried in the Zuiderkerk.
The incredible story of Grasdorp’s stay with his master and bully Ernst Stuven
The biographer of Dutch contemporary painters, Arnold Houbraken describes in his ‘De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen’ from 1718 (P. 373 -378) extensively about the unhappy adventures of our Willem Grasdorp.
His master, the German still life painter Ernst Stuven was born in Hamburg circa 1657. In 1675, at the age of 18, he travelled to Amsterdam, where he studied under the Dutch painter Johannes Voorhout I (at that time he was mainly active as a portrait painter) whom he had met in Hamburg. Stuven rapidly switched to still life painting, studying first under Willem van Aelst, later under Abraham Mignon; in Hamburg Stuven’s very first master had been the still life painter Georg Hainz.
Aged 19, in 1697, Grasdorp had been sent by his mother to Amsterdam to study during three years painting under Ernst Stuven. Stuven, who was apparently a terribly aggressive man, severely mistreated Grasdorp and locked him up in his house. Finally Grasdorp was able to write a letter to his mother. Houbraken described in his juicy style how Stuven, by then completely mad, fought with our painter’s uncle and also with several police officers. He then prepared himself for a siege in a room at the first floor of his house: he had a sword, loaded guns and a heap of stones ready, which he could throw to the bailiff’s men. Stuven appeared screaming at the window with his face and hands painted in red, and told his imprisoned pupil Grasdorp to prepare for death. Stuven beat him up, he even pierced his lip with a pencil. Finally after a few days the policemen were able to break away the flooring of the room above Stuven and they caught him with a shipper’s hook attached to a rope, which went through his cheek. Stuven was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.
Ernst Stuven was sent to the Rasphuis prison where prisoners had to rasp the wood from the brazilwood tree to powder. When oxidised that powder formed a red pigment that was used as a textile dye. After six years some of his clients saw to it that he was released, on the sole condition that he would leave Amsterdam. As he remained in Amsterdam, returned to his strange behaviour and insulted a magistrate, he was again imprisoned for some time. After he was released for the second time he lived for a short spell in Haarlem before moving to Rotterdam where he lived for a couple of years until his death in 1712.
About Nature Pieces
Around 1650, the empirical investigation into the behaviour and physiology of snakes, toads, lizards, chameleons, hedgehogs, etc. is detectable on a pan-European scale. Animals were either collected and housed in jars, or observed in their native or in specially designed and enclosed habitats.
During the second half of the 17th century the Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (Nijmegen 1619/20 – 1678 Amsterdam) invented a new genre, a new subject of paintings: so-called "Nature Pieces": a small and bizarre micro-cosmos set against an often Italianate landscape background. These forest floors represent a mysterious dark close-up of the shadowy undergrowth of forest floors, giving detailed views of wild flowers, weeds, thistles and mushrooms, animated by butterflies, strange insects, reptiles, toads, frogs and lizards.
In 1648 van Schrieck had to travelled to Italy with Mathias Withoos and with Willem van Aelst. In Rome they had joined the Schildersbent, an association of Northern painters, mostly Dutch and Flemish, notorious for its bacchic rituals and opposition to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. Here van Schrieck’s "Bentname" had been "Snuffelaar", the "Snuffler" because of his habit of roaming the countryside in search of plants, lizards and other animals.
Back in Holland van Schrieck, who had married a wealthy man's daughter in 1664, had a small estate outside Amsterdam, where he bred snakes and other animals.
Many important Dutch artists from the 2nd half of the 17th century and from the early 18th century painted the same subjects and were equally influenced by Otto Marseus van Schrieck, such as Rachel Ruysch, Abraham Begeyn, Willem van Aelst, Elias van den Broeck, Abraham Mignon, Melchior de Hondecoeter and Nicolaes Lachtropius.
Often they show plants and animals that normally are not encountered together, some of them having their habitat in Italy, others in Holland.
About our painting
In the right foreground Grasdorp has painted a snail and a green male sand lizard, which still lives and used to live in Holland. It reaches a length of 16 à 20 cm. The female sand lizard is brown. Although its appearance is exotic sand lizards do not live in Italy (nor in Spain or Portugal). European rhinoceros beetle, represented flying in front of the foot of the Hercules statue, can be found all over Europe ((though not in the UK). It measures some four cm.
Willem Grasdorp regularly painted rather strange animals, such as snails, lizards, the European Rinoceros beetle and the stag beetle in his still lifes.
In the middle of our composition one sees pomegranates, peaches, plums, medlars and green grapes on the vine.
In the right background stands a Medici vase, at left a statue of Hercules killing the Hydra of Lerna. The greatest Greek divine hero, Heracles, is best known under his Roman name, Hercules. He was the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and of a mortal woman, Alcmene. Zeus had been boasting that the next boy born in the house of Perseus was to become a powerful ruler (of Argos or Tiryns). Zeus’ wife, Hera, who was fed up with the infidelity of her husband, saw to it that Eurystheus was born prematurely and therefore became the next king. Eurystheus imposed upon Hercules the famous Twelve Labors, tasks so difficult that no mortal could fulfil them. But Hercules did.
1. Slay the Nemean Lion.
2. Slay the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna.
3. Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis.
4. Capture the Erymanthian Boar.
5. Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
6. Slay the Stymphalian Birds.
7. Capture the Cretan Bull.
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
9. Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
10. Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon.
11. Steal the apples of the Hesperides
12. Capture and bring back Cerberus.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because this beautifully painted, fascinating, exotic park landscape painted by this rare, Late Baroque artist holds several unusual and therefore very interesting, eccentric, sought-after elements.