The Flowers Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum (currently closed, alas, because of COVID-19) is one of my favourite places – I can’t get enough of the botanical paintings, the glorious jumble of blooms which you would never find (even in these ‘fly-in-your-flowers-from-around-the-world’ times) flowering at the same time in nature. I’ve just come across a new name (for me, which of course counts for nothing) in the gallery: the sadly short-lived Abraham Mignon (1640–79).
You would guess from his surname that Mignon was French. In fact, his Calvinist family was from the Hainaut region of the Low Countries, and had emigrated to Frankfurt am Main in Germany (where his father made a living as a cheese merchant) to escape the religious turmoil of the previous century. Young Abraham was baptised on 21 June 1640.
When his family moved to Wetzlar, seat of the Imperial Supreme Court, in 1649, they left him behind, presumably as an apprentice, with Jacob Marrell (or Marrel; 1613–81), a flower painter who also dealt in art, and who is probably best remembered as the stepfather of Maria Sibylla Merian. Marrell himself had trained in Utrecht between 1632 and 1650 as a pupil of Jan Davidszoon de Heem (who divided his time between Utrecht and Antwerp).
Marrell travelled back to Utrecht frequently, apparently leaving Mignon to run the Frankfurt business; he also seems to have had a least a part in the training of Maria Sibylla. His movements during the 1660s are unclear (it is suggested that he rejoined his family in Wetzlar for part of the time), but by 1669 both Mignon and Marrell are recorded as members of the Guild of St Luke in Utrecht, with Mignon acting as an assistant in de Heem’s workshop. It is thought possible that Mignon took the workshop over when de Heem moved to Antwerp in 1672.
In the same year, Mignon was elected deacon of the Walloon church of Utrecht, a post he held for five years. He married Maria Willaerts, from a Calvinist painting family – her grandfather was the marine painter Adam Willaerts, her father was Cornelis, the least known of his three painter sons, and another uncle was Jakob Gillig, a painter of fish – at Sint Jan’s Protestant church in Utrecht in February 1675. They had six children, of whom only two daughters, Anna and Catharina, survived their father.
One of the quirks of Mignon’s oeuvre is that most of the pictures have had very long titles imposed on them: ‘Still life with a hoopoe, a great tit, a falconry hood and a decoy whistle, all arranged within a stone’, for example;
or ‘Still life with peonies, roses, parrot tulips, morning glory, an iris and poppies in a glass vase set within a stone niche and caterpillars, a snail, a bee and a cockchafer on the ledge below’.
One can quite see that, in an output of still lifes (lives?), this sort of accuracy is necessary to distinguish between the works (though one of the two paintings at the Fitzwilliam, bequeathed in 1834, after the Fitzwilliam Bequest of 1816 but before the present building was opened in 1848) is called simply ‘Flower-piece’.
As well as flower-pieces, and arrangements of fruit, veg and fish,
Mignon also created niches and grottoes full of wildlife: ‘Interior of a grotto with a rock-pool, frogs, salamanders and a bird’s nest’, for example.
Some of these, it has to be said, are rather off-putting to modern sensibilities: this apparently dead red squirrel, tethered by the hind leg and observed nervously by its mate from behind a pile of fish, while a pair of redstarts feed their brood unconcernedly above, jars somewhat, however beautifully it has been executed.(Question to self: would I mind so much if it was grey squirrels? In fact, I probably would … I don’t mean the little blighters active harm, however much damage they do to birds’ eggs and my tulip bulbs.)
And, of course, the grottoes and caverns full of carefully arranged flowers are even more ‘artificial’ than a normal flower painting with its seasonally impossible groupings. Nevertheless, the skill and virtuosity of these works – the craft in the art, as it were – is amazing: except that, like so many other artists, Mignon simply could not paint a cat.
Mignon appears to have had a profitable career as an artist, and was patronised by Louis XIV and John George II, the Elector of Saxony who had begun the transformation of Dresden into a centre for music and the arts. The reason for his death in 1679 does not seem to be known.
He was buried in the Buurkerk in Utrecht (now a museum of self-playing instruments) and his grave, along with those of other contemporary painters, is no longer marked. Sadly, no portrait of him seems to have survived, a possible one at the Metropolitan Museum having been rejected. A short life, then, even by the gloomy standards of his day, but a startlingly productive one.