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Still life: three dead birds

Willelm van Aelst (Delft 1626-27 – Amsterdam post 1683)

1650-1655 c.
Corridor of the Columns
Oil on canvas
22.5 x 27.5 cm
1890 no. 1209

The painting was acquired by Cardinal Giovan Carlo de' Medici, the Dutch artist's greatest patron during his Italian period, between 1649 and 1657, who kept fifteen paintings by this artist in his residences. The small painting then joined the collection of small works that Grand Prince Ferdinand had hung in a dressing room in the villa at Poggio a Caiano.

The canvas depicts the bodies of three small birds, two finches and a bunting, on a chipped stone surface, and rather than a hunting trophy, it comes across as more of a silent homage to the fragile existence of creatures of the air whose lives have been needlessly sacrificed. In the space of a very small composition, the largest part of which is occupied by an oppressive pitch black background, the painter places before our eyes the abandonment and soft surrender of the three little bodies. The vibrant colours of their feathers and down are made even brighter by the fading light that effectively illuminates and defines them.

Despite its minimal size, the painting confirms those qualities of imitation of nature that inspired great admiration and words of esteem in his contemporaries, such as those of Roman artist Fabrizio Piermattei, who wrote to Cardinal Giovan Carlo de' Medici: "...And indeed, I admire the way the colours are managed, so softly that they appear to walk hand in hand with nature".

Text by
Silvia Mascalchi
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