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This post is devoted to a preliminary analysis of the paintings and drawings which were found in the online database of the RKD [1] (medio 2013). Although this implies some constraints (new data have been added since this time, other works exists that are not covered by the RKD), this analysis gives a first impression of snails in drawings and paintings during 1500-1800. Questions that interested me were, among others: During which period(s) have shells and snails predominantly been used in art works? Is there a difference between the use of European and tropical species? Have there been artists for whom the snail was an important theme in their work?

The database has been searched using the terms ‘schelp’ (shell) and ‘slak’ (snail); this way over 500 works have been identified where one or more shells or snails are present. In the rest of the text the word ‘snail(s)’ refers to both terms.

From this inventory, the following data were extracted:
a) Artist. The current identifications by the RKD have been followed; for composite works the artist of the part with the shells / snails has been used. Unequivocal works (‘follower of’, or ‘using the style of’) have been excluded. A total of 103 artists have been identified with art work containing snails.
b) Year of production. If no fixed date is known, the average from the dates given was used.
c) Type of species. A distinction was made between European and tropical species; only three works were found where both types are present.
d) Number of works with snails per artist. Besides the total number, the number of works with European resp. tropical species was noted; the latter number was also counted as percentage of the total.
e) Total number of hits per artist. This number was taken as a proxy of the productivity of the artist. The percentage number of works with snails was used as a proxy for the importance of the ‘snail theme’ per artist.


In the figure above we see the number of work containing snails (X-axis) against year of production (Y-axis). From this figure it is clear that this malacological theme culminated during the first three quarters of the 17th century. The maximum of 59 works was made by Abraham Mignon, a Dutch painter who worked mainly in Utrecht and exclusively used European species. The top-10 ranking artists are:




In the second figure the occurrence of tropical specimens in art works is shown as percentage against time. These species only appear during the 17th century and may be linked to the discoveries brought by the East and West Indian Trading Companies. It seems that if an artist decided to use tropical shells, they were used in most of his snail works. A good example of this was Balthasar van der Ast, which may be seen in the next figure. The occurrence of tropical specimens is shown as percentage of the total number of snail works.


Finally, the percentage of the total works mentioned in the RKD database in which snails as theme are used is presented. It appears that 13 artists have a percentage above 10%. Joris Hoefnagel, for which nearly half of the works found contain one or more snails, made drawings; the other artists are painters. Besides Abraham Mignon, the ‘snail theme’ also seems to have been important for Elias van den Broeck, although the absolute number of works is less than of Mignon. Only Balthasar van der Ast en Ambrosius Bosschaert (II) used tropical species in part of their works.


Despite the limited framework of the data collection, this preliminary analysis sheds some interesting lights on this malacological theme in art history. Further details will be presented in a forthcoming paper for which the manuscript is in preparation.

[1] explore.rkd.nl