87. Anonymous (French School, nineteenth century)

Diadem Spider (“Araneus diadematus”) on its Web

Frits Lugt was particularly fond of naturalist representations of plants and small animals, in which Golden Age Dutch artists, notably Jacques de Gheyn the Younger (1565-1629), became experts. Two centuries later, that legacy can be discerned in this watercolour, whose author is still unknown to us today. The anonymous artist, a proficient naturalist, represented a female diadem spider,1 recognisable by the wavy, cruciform patterns that adorn its dorsal abdomen. It was drawn life-size, or barely enlarged,2 in a round format that suggests a magnifying glass lens, producing an intriguing trompe l’oeil. The brush accurately described the variations in colour and texture on the animal’s body, as well as the expressive articulation of its legs. Moreover, the spider is shown in the process of weaving its web, using one of its rear legs to pull a silk thread produced at the base of its abdomen. With their spiral geometry, built on a weave formed of radii, the webs of diadem spiders are in fact characteristic of this species. The draughtsman detailed the threads with thin lines in pen and grey ink, using a ruler, rendering the diaphanous lightness of this structure, which the spider patiently rebuilds every day.

This watercolour, belonging to an old pictorial tradition3 – and owing its descriptive accuracy to the works of Carl von Linné (1707-1778) –, attains the stature of an authentic wonder, midway between art and science. In the nineteenth century, when science became institutionalised and scientific practices were beginning to be displayed in museums, these representations were chosen by private collectors for their aesthetic, rather than didactic, appeal.4 With its elegant ebony-style frame, this work doubtless occupied a choice position in a connoisseur’s cabinet.

Our naturalist study expands the already extremely rich collection held by the Fondation Custodia, which boasts among others a series of twenty-two drawings5 by Jacques de Gheyn the Younger, representing flowers, insects and other animals, an outstanding portfolio of drawings of tulips, shells and insects by Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94-1657),6 as well as an album of drawings of birds by Aert Schouman (1710-1792)7. MNG

1The Dutch artist, Jan Augustin van der Goes (active 1694-1697) had already represented this same specimen; Spider, c. 1690-1700, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. no. RP-T-1884-A-330F (watercolour and gouache on vellum; 41 × 51 mm); see https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/zoeken.

2Females of this species can be up to 22,5 mm long.

3The first example of an autonomous study of an insect being the Lucanus Cervus (Stag-beetle) by Albrecht Dürer, 1505, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. no. 83.GC.214 (watercolour and gouache; 141 × 114 mm); see Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image. Visualizing Nature in Early-Modern Europe, 1500-1700, Minneapolis and London, 2011, p. XI-XII; and http://www.getty.edu/art/collection.

4Ibid., p. 189-190.

5Tempera, watercolour and gouache on vellum, c. 1604; drawings once owned by Rudolph II of Prague, bound in an album in the nineteenth century (dimensions of the binding: 234 × 182 mm), acquired by Frits Lugt in 1939, inv. 5655A-V; see Karel G. Boon, The Netherlandish and German drawings of the XVth and XVIth centuries of the Frits Lugt collection, Paris and Zwolle, 1992, no. 80, pl. 162-183.

6Seventy-one drawings in watercolour, gouache and tempera, assembled in a portfolio (vellum; 315 × 203 mm), acquired by Frits Lugt in 1918, inv. no. 6534(1-71); see Sarvenaz Ayooghi, Sylvia Böhmer and Timo Trümper, Die Stillleben des Balthasar van der Ast, exh. cat., Aachen (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum) and Gotha (Herzogliches Museum) 2016, cat. no. 40 a-k.

7Two hundred and eighteen drawings in watercolour and gouache, initially pasted in the “Vogelalbum” (bound in the eighteenth century), acquired by Frits Lugt in 1923, inv. no. 1407; see Charles Dumas (ed.), Een koninklijk paradijs, exh. cat., Dordrecht (Dordrechts Museum) 2017, cat. nos. 53, 65, 66, 68, 86, 87, 88, 89.