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After my recent post on Rembrandt’s second mirrored shell I decided to look up the results of my ‘Gould-Allmon test’. Reminding you that I posed several questions here, I will now attempt to answer two of them. How are snails illustrated with a direct technique like painting or drawing? Is there a difference between different artists?

For that purpose 503 art works classified with either ‘shell’ or ‘snail’ on the RKD website were re-examined, both paintings and drawings; these originated between 1483 and early 18th century. After excluding ambiguous illustrations (due to low resolution available), 456 works remained, of which 384 paintings and 72 drawings. To provide context also 11 engravings were checked, made by some of the same artists. Finally, engravings made between 1550 and ca. 1725 and posted already in this blog were re-examined.

Of the 456 art works studied, 41 have one or more sinistral specimens on them. Of these, 23 correctly illustrated species as sinistral. Thus on 439 art works (96%) the shells were accurately drawn or painted. The oldest one found in the RKD digital holdings is from the end of the 16th century and is attributed to Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. Only 16 works (5 paintings, 11 drawings) illustrated shells as sinistral which are supposed to be dextral. One painting by Jacob Marrel shows a somewhat stylised snail, likely modelled after an imaginary species and I consider this a case of ambiguity [1].

When we focus first on the five paintings, we see that three of these are attributed to Balthasar van der Ast; all are dated 1624 or 1625, thus from his Utrecht period. However, it should be noted that these are exceptions within the large oeuvre of Van der Ast, and he made also paintings during the same period that illustrate these animals correctly. Furthermore, contrary to other works, the sinistral shells on these paintings seem to represent European, but unidentifiable, species. A somewhat puzzling observation.
One painting was made by Anthonie van Borssum and is dated 1650-1677. And finally, a special case is an altar panel in oil paint by an anonymous artist and dated as early as 1493. On the panel a sinistral shell in medieval style is seen (link).

The first painting of Van der Ast is dated 1624 and is an oil paint on copper; it shows a flower still life with insects and a lizard [2]. In the centre of the painting, i.e. between the flowers, a whitish figure is seen which may be interpreted as snail. While at first thinking it could also be interpreted as a petal in the background highlighted by the artist—as the resolution of the available figure is not good enough to make a detailed picture—a second look at a lower resolution convinced me: it is a snail! The greyish body of the animal even faintly shows the two larger tentacles. According to the provenance this work was last seen at an art gallery in London, but it is now likely in an unknown private collection.



The second work of the same artist is entitled ‘Still life of a basket of flowers surrounded by shells and small animals in a niche‘ [3]. This painting shows five sea shells and two land snails; a combination which Balthasar van der Ast used before, but the occurrence of two living snails is somewhat unusual for him. On this oil paint on panel (28.6 x 49.5 cm) we see in the centre a whitish dextral snail. Is there a link with the previous painting? Secondly, there is a larger specimen on the right-hand border of the niche. This is a sinistral specimen, the shell with evenly increasing whorls (3+), a large aperture, and a colour pattern with a darker spiral band. The animal shows two tentacles only. The provenance list indicates that this painting was auctioned in 2000 at Sotherby’s New York; its current whereabouts are unknown [3].




The third example is an oil paint on copper. This work is supposed to be made by Balthasar van der Ast ca. 1625 (1623–1628), but has been restored and partly repainted during recent times. Dimensions 26.8 x 21 cm [4]. Slightly above the centre a brownish sinistral snail is seen in side view. The shell has rapidly widening whorls (2+ only) and a large aperture. This art work was auctioned at Hampel, München in 2013 and sold to an unknown buyer.



The fourth painting is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and is Van Borssoms ‘Animals and plants’. This forest still life has dimensions of 62 x 49 cm [5]. There is one snail to be seen at the right-hand side of the painting, probably modelled after a (supposedly dextral) Cepaea specimen. However, the way the whorls are figured suggest a sinistral specimen. The animal is not shown and the shell is partly covered by a plant, but it seems like an inaccurate illustration of this species as far as coiling is concerned. This painting is the only one in his oeuvre where he used a shell.



Of the drawings all found with sinistral specimens were made by Joris Hoefnagel during the 1590s. Some of these were studies for later prints by Jacob Hoefnagel (e.g., see here); this drawing, now in the Prague Národni Gallery shows two sinistral specimens.


In some others a sinistral snail is mirroring a dextral one, and this clearly is done for the cause of symmetry (e.g., in this manuscript in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna [7], and here).


In others the sinistral snail is the only specimen, e.g. in this drawing currently in the British Museum [8] resp. several figures in this manuscript now in the Paul Getty Museum [9], e.g. this one of Arianta arbustorum (Linnaeus, 1758).



When we compare this to engravings known from Joris and Jacob Hoefnagel, i.e. from their ‘Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii’ (here), we see that out of the 11 prints seven have one sinistral snail each, one print has a dextral and a sinistral snail, and two prints remain in the ambiguous category.

Also when we broaden the context and look to other engravings during the 16th and 17th century, as far as treated so far, we see the same pattern: symmetry as an important theme (here and here) or a single sinistral shell (here and here) do occur. As we have seen, also Rembrandt has fallen repeatedly into this trap of a wrongly mirrored shell.

The following (tentative, as this was a restrictive sample of molluscs) conclusions may be drawn:
– Regarding engravings the Gould-Allmon thesis seems to be correct that in pre-18th century shell illustrations accuracy was not the driving force; symmetry and overall aesthetics might have been of more relative importance to the artists.
– With regard to paintings and drawings, it is at the turn of the 16th/17th century that artists started to illustrate shells more accurately than before. Van Borssom may have been erratic and the few exceptional cases in Van der Ast’s oeuvre may be worth a further study. Overall, my conclusion related to paintings and drawings is that the Gould-Allmon thesis should be re-formulated for this category to reflect the findings mentioned above.

[1] RKD art work 189998, http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/189998.
[2] RKD art work 49631, http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/49631.
[3] RKD art work 64603, http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/64603.
[4] RKD art work 50548, http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/50548.
[5] RMA inv. SK-A-1535, http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.6170; RKD art work 14535.
[6] Národni Gallery, Prague, inv. O 192; see http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/121089.
[7] KMW inv. 975; see http://explore.rkd.nl/explore/images/121636.
[8] BML, inv. PD 1997-7-12-56.
[9] PGM, ms. 20.