• Acquired May 15th, 1847 in London, at Mawson’s, according to family tradition.
• Paris, Private Collection.
The quantity of works, mostly signed and dated, by François Habert is in contrast to the few elements available concerning his biography. Neither the dates of his life nor his origins are known, and he is assumed to be Flemish uniquely because of his Nordic manner. However if his training could have been Dutch – historians have hypothesized that he was a student of the still life painter Balthasar van der Ast, living in Delft since 1632, or Jan Davidsz. De Heem of Antwerp, - his career seems to have been totally Parisian, covering – to judge from dates on his pictures – about fifteen years from between 1640 and 1655. The influences of Jan Fyt, Jeany-Michel Picart, and Pieter van Boucle, especially apparent in his first known works, attest to Habert’s close relations with Flemish artists living in the Faubourg de Saint-Germain-des-Près. He apparently collaborated on several works with Jacques Hupin, notably the Platter of Fruit, Flowers, Gold and Silver Work, and Carpet on a Table.
Notarized acts, the only documents which make it possible to reconstitute the affiliations and experience of artists in the capital, civil status documents lost in the fire of City Hall during the Commune, reveal the existence of two painters named Habert: Claude Habert and Nicolas Habert. The first, Master Painter, lived rue du Four in the Saint-Germain Faubourg in 1642. He had his daughter Marguerite baptized in Saint-Sulpice in 1636, with a certain Marguerite Vandermolle, undoubtedly of Flemish origins, as Godmother. Born in about 1650 and active until 1715, Nicolas Habert engraved the works of great academicians of the second half of the century. Finally, a Claude Habert was a painter at the University of Pont-à-Mousson between 1705 and 1715 and painted portraits of professors. The eventual link between these artists and our painter of still lifes remains to be elucidated.
Post-mortem inventories, another inestimable source for studying painters of the Grand Century, furnish two mentions which testify to Habert’s notoriety. Drawn up by Nicolas de Platte-Montagne on August 17th, 1674, the inventory of Philippe de Champaigne’s collections thus mention “a garland of flowers by Sieur Habert.” It was estimated at 100 pounds, one of the highest of the ensemble which mainly comprised paintings by the deceased master, as well as a few landscapes by Francisque Millet estimated between 25 and 40 pounds, a painting of fruit by Willem van Aelst estimated at 40 pounds, and “a large picture of fruit by Van Bouchet [Pieter van Boucle]” estimated at 100 pounds. Habert’s Still Life did not appear in a post-mortem inventory of Jean-Baptiste” de Champaigne (1631-1681), universal legatee of his uncle. Another mention figures in the inventory of the collector Charles Tardif, Secretary to the Marshall of Boufflers, deceased in 1728: “Picture of Flowers by Habert, without a border, purchased at the inventory of M. de Catinat [died in 1712], one foot high by 1 foot three inches wide, estimated at three pounds nine sous.”
By its opulence and elegance, our still life belongs to the trend of pronkstilleven (ostentatious still life) developed by Dutch artists such as Jan Davids. De Heem, Abraham van Beyern, and Willem Kalf, in the mid 17th century. In a formidable accumulation and theatrical staging, rare and sumptuous objects are placed with delicacies, blooming flowers, fruit, silks and velvets, so as to allow the artists to demonstrate their technical virtuosity. Particular attention was given to the play of light on diverse surfaces: polished, opaque, translucid, soft or velvety.
Our picture is an example of the most finished baroque luxury which characterized Habert’s late works and followed the sobriety of his beginnings. The cascading display, from the cluttered right side to the relative emptiness on the left, giving the effect of a perfectly balanced inverted perspective is particular to Habert’s art. The abundance of different handlings and colors is only apparent because everything is perfectly organized so as to let each objet shine, juxtaposed to others yet autonomous: basket full of fruit posed next to a blue Morocco chest; a glass of red wine traversed by ray of light; a velvet cushion embroidered with gold thread; feathered tulips and peonies in a round glass vase on which the studio window is reflected; a large round basin; a gilt silver dish; a lute; a worked gold ewer; a nautilus polished to bring out the mother-of-pearl iridescence; a Chinese porcelain goblet; gold-fringed silks and velvets; peeled lemon; red-veined marble entablature; all the way to the heavy drapery held by spangled cords which take the place of a neutral background. Narration is limited to the decoration of the ewer without making it possible to determine the exact subject. The whole composition is served by an audacious contrasted palette, along with and elegant sensitive brushstroke which only thickens to confer real volume to embroidery and gold threads, and the palpable roughness of the lemon peel and melon.
With a remarkable sense of decorative orchestration, Habert multiplies diagonals, reflections, and chromatic shading, as well as poetic allusions that contemporary viewers knew how to deciper when their gaze lifted from the half-peeled lemon to the Eucharistic symbols of the glass of wine and grapes.
Bibliography of the Work
Éric COATALEM, Florence THIEBLOT, La Nature morte française au XVIIe siècle, Paris, Faton, 2015, p. 184, repr. pp. 5 (detail), 184, 377.
Michel FARE, Le Grand Siècle de la nature morte en France. Le XVIIe siècle, Paris, Freiburg, Office du Livre, 1974, pp. 272-277.
Christopher WRIGHT, The French Painters of the Seventeenth Century, London, Orbis, 1985, p. 189.
Claudia SALVI, D’après nature. La Nature morte en France au XVIIe siècle, Tournai, La Renaissance du Livre, 2000, pp. 109-123.