Mountainous landscape with ducks, fully signed and dated 1683, is the earliest known work by Adriaen Coorte, a painter who is primarily known for his small and simple still life paintings.1 The view behind the ducks opens up to a lake with three figures near a boat and a mountainous landscape of a kind Coorte would never paint again. That he started his career painting waterfowl in landscapes is evident from another, more elaborate composition in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, made in the same year (fig. 1).2 The present painting, however, is painted on a much bigger canvas and is the largest painting Coorte ever made.3
The two highly decorative works, atypical as they may be, are of crucial importance since as the earliest dated works they provide clues as to where Coorte received his training, and with whom. The style and composition of the two paintings are so closely related to the work of the bird painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) that Coorte can be assumed to have worked in D’Hondecoeter’s studio in Amsterdam.4 Indeed, the birds in the two paintings have been copied literally from different works by D’Hondecoeter. In the Oxford painting, the pelican in the foreground, the Egyptian goose standing at the water’s edge and the recumbent smew were all borrowed from‘The floating feather’ (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), one of the masterpieces of D’Hondecoeter’s oeuvre, made around 1680, or from a comparable painting of this artist.5 It is striking that Coorte has grouped the four ducks identically in the lower right corner in the two paintings: the mother duck is swimming from the right, accompanied by two ducklings, while the fourth duck is diving under water. Both the characteristic group of the mother duck with her ducklings, and the motif of the diving black duck, of which only its tail feathers and one red foot can be seen, derive from paintings by D’Hondecoeter.6
There can surely be no doubt that Coorte was working in D’Hondecoeter’s studio around 1683. What is more, the occurrence of the name ‘Coorte’ in earlier archival documents from Amsterdam seems to indicate that the painter had relatives in the city.7 Coorte appears to have stopped painting birds after 1683, concentrating exclusively on still lifes.8
That Coorte must have spent a period of apprentice in Amsterdam is also clear from other motifs in Mountainous landscape with ducks. The plants behind the ducks – a variegated-leaved milk thistle at the base of a tree on a riverbank – are reminiscent of the work of yet another Amsterdam painter, Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/20-1678). The rendering of the moss in clearly links Coorte to this artist.9 The special stippling technique Coorte used to render this moss – which also occurs on the three – was a method favoured by that painter. This too probably points to D’Hondecoeter’s influence, since the latter’s earliest works were greatly influenced by Marseus van Schrieck.
Coorte’s more characteristic fruit and vegetable still lifes on a stone table set against a dark background, continue a predominantly Haarlem and Amsterdam-based tradition of sober, small-format still lifes.10 The impact of two pioneering Haarlem artists, Pieter Claesz (c.1597-1660) and Willem Heda (c.1596-1680), is clearly visible in the work of a later generation of Amsterdam still-life painters. In the second quarter of the seventeenth century Claesz and Heda, who were best known for their ‘breakfast pieces’ and richly decked tables, had produced a number of sober still lifes in a modest format, consisting of a few objects on a stone table. The compositions of the scenes Coorte painted after 1683 derive from predominantly sober still lifes from Amsterdam painters such as Jan van de Velde III (1619/20-c.1661). From 1693 Coorte would confine himself almost exclusively to his now familiar genre, depicting one or two kinds of fruit or vegetables, or a couple of shells, on a stone ledge against a dark background. No real stylistic development can be discerned in this second period in Coorte’s career. Some 65 paintings by Coorte are known from the period 1683 to 1707.11
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Coorte’s work was relatively unknown and his still lifes fetched only modest sums at auction. That he is appreciated far more today must largely be credited to the former director of the Dordrechts Museum, Laurens J. Bol (1898-1994), who published a catalogue raisonné of Coorte’s oeuvre in 1977, when this painting was still unknown. Bol’s monograph followed his exploratory study of the artist in the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (1952-1953) and a monographic exhibition held in the Dordrechts Museum in 1958. Although Bol was unable to find any biographical information on Coorte in the archives, his study of old auction catalogues revealed the presence of a large concentration of Coorte’s paintings in and around Middelburg between 1700 and 1900.12 Given that collectors from this area were mainly interested in works by local painters, it is reasonable to assume that Coorte worked in or near Middelburg. This hypothesis is supported by an entry in the 1695-1696 annals of the Guild of St Luke in Middelburg, indicating that a ‘Coorde fijnschilder’ had been ordered to pay a fine of one Flemish pound for the unauthorised sale of ‘some paintings’.13