Salvadore Dali had nothing on the unintentionally surreal, 17th century study sheets of Michael Snijders, Flemish, draughtsman, publisher & art dealer.
Michael Snijders was a Flemish print artist, art dealer, draftsman, publisher. He was born in Antwerp in 1586 & died there, aged 87 on December 18th 1672.
Exactly what possessed Snijders to create and publish these crazed engravings is unknown, but publish them he did. In Antwerp sometime between 1610 & 1672.
Whilst being totally unlike anything else from the period content perspective, in truth Snijders most likely created them as publicity peices that would stand out. “Study sheets” produced and published solely to showcase Snijders range of engraving abilities, to generate commissions rather than demonstrate his insane imagination.
Snijders chose to feature exotic fruits brought from faraway lands, newly discovered animals, mythical and invented creatures, he ripped off famous imagery of iconic superstars, plundered antiquity, threw in a few key religious themes and used symbolism that the 17th century public would easily understand. The images are to a degree about modernity and progress. The exotic overseas fruits reflect Dutch exploration, travel and global reach, the menagerie of animals talk to exciting advances in knowledge of natural history and the famous faces tell us about who and what was respected and celebrated.
Each “study” is a uniquely strange and evocative collage, packed full of Flemish culture, a rich mélange of elements bouncing off each other, brimming with deep and hidden meaning.
More than 300 years after Snijders created these prints, we can never truly and completely understand their every nuance.
From left to right in the centre are 3 portraits: first there’s Frederik III the Wise (Elector of Saxony) notable as being one of the most powerful early defenders of Martin Luther. Snijders has Frederik III the Wise’s head sitting snugly in the hairy shell of a coconut. From Frederik III the Wise’s left, a mosquito approaches and a fox is looking at him admiringly. A goat is walking jauntily on his (then famous) floppy hat. In the middle we have the pointy-bearded artist of the Flemish Baroque, Sir Anthony van Dyck. Behind Sir Anthony’s head, which is perched on a peach, a dragonfly, a butterfly and a spider crawl over another peach. Lastly, there’s Quentin Matsys, an ironsmith-turned-Flemish painter in the Early Netherlandish tradition. He’s looking away, over some tulips at something out of frame. Snijders has added Quinten’s name, place and year of death around his hat, above which stands a toucan with an oversized crab claw of a beak. In the foreground, from right to left: a hand with a shell beneath it points to a hare which follows a huge elephant beetle which, in turn, follows a small lizard. Snijders copied the toucan from Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, the hare and the fox from Aegidius Sadeler and the beetle and butterfly from Jooris Hoefnagel.
This one is identical to the one above except there’s no Sir Anthony van Dyck. Snijders must have added him to the middle peach later. The next print one previous to this.
This is the earlist version of this Snijders print and it gives us a unique insight into his decision making over 350 years ago. Here there’s no celebrities at all. He likely started with just five peaches. Later, the 2 cut peaches on the left were transformed into the hairy coconut that housed Frederik III the Wise’s head. Snijders also changed the hand above it into a hillside. He swapped the carnation on the top right for a toucan and covered the nude torso below with tulips.
This was his workflow. Nothing was sacred. If he didn’t like it he’d cover it, change it. He developed these prints using a process similar to a tattoo artist doing complex cover ups. If he didn’t like it anymore he’d simply change it. If there was a gap, he’d fill it. Until finally he reached a complex madness he was happy with or there was no longer any scope for change or gaps to fill.
For a change, Snijders has let some fruit have centre stage. No famous heads obscure them, no insects crawl on them. They are free. In the middle a hero fig sits on it’s leaf, underneath it, a lizard is looking at a second fig which lays cut open. There’s a also a rhinoceros beetle, a caterpillar and a sea turtle which is. At the top left there’s a Madonna with a evil pointed nosed Christ Child (which Snijders has copied from Raphael) who looks out at us hauntingly. Top right a there’s lapwing flower which probably represents a “nosegay”, a small bunch of flowers which were held under the nose to ward off the evil stinks of the streets. Next to the lapwing flower nosegay, there’s a giraffe. In the middle, a flying insect dive bombs the Madonna and a peacock stingray butterfly swoops over the central fig. Christ is raising an eyebrow in the bottom left corner and between the splayed open fig and the lizard, a moustachioed face looks out at us plaintively.
An earlier version of the previous print. Snijders wasn’t happy with this. He later transformed the flower at top right into Raphael’s Madonna & evil Christ Child and swapped the rear fig for a giraffe.
Here, there are three 17th century celebrities staring out at us. At the top left there’s a portrait of Maria Ruthven, lady-in-waiting to England’s Queen Henrietta Maria, and the wife of the artist, Sir Anthony van Dyck. A Snijders grotesque (the hare with horns) is (perhaps) whispering in Maria Ruthven’s ear and she raises a knowing eyebrow. Beneath Maria is the Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. Known simply as Raphael, he also stares out at us from behind a shaggy dog. Shaggy dog is in a face off with a hedgehog and a bird with a woman’s head. A siren. Above this little pre-fight scene there’s the Flemish sculptor and architect, Lucas Faydherbe. A key figure in the development of the High Baroque.
The 2 figures at top right, Snijders has stolen from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. There’s a parrot on a tree next to them and a fruit of some kind with it’s large internal seed missing. Finally, at bottom right we have a travelling man wearily resting against a tree holding the reins of his dejected and equally tired donkey.
Two pomegranites, each with a portrait. The pomegranite on the left features a portrait of the founder of Western political philosophy, Plato. The man look out of this strange menagerie at top right is Sir Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish Baroque artist who was England’s leading court painter at the time, after huge success in the Southern Netherlands and Italy. The pomegranite on the right is wearing a portrait of the painter Titian. Around all this various insects animals are crawling and – in the bottom left corner – a man with wings holds a naked lady protectively.
In the middle foreground, beneath the pomegranite portraits, that’s a civet, a small, lean, mostly nocturnal mammal native to tropical Asia and Africa, especially the tropical forests. The best-known civet species is the African civet, Civettictis civetta, which was the main species from which musky scents used in 17th century perfumery was obtained.
The key celebrity figure here is in the 2 portraits at top left. They show a younger and an older Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), a Dutch painter, stained glass master, printmaker, engraver and woodcut artist. His candle burned fiercely and went out quickly. He died young, falling victim to tuberculosis at just 39. When Snijders engraved him for this print over a century later, Van Leyden was super famous, a legend. He inspired and influenced Rembrandt who owned all of his prints.
Next to the young Van Leyden there’s a portrait of a turbanned “Moorhead”. The Moors were Muslim inhabitants of the Maghreb, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Malta during the Middle Ages. Above the Moorhead an huge eagle soars holding a sheep in its talons. To the right of the Moorshead, an exasperated Mary Magdalene is looking to the heavens. In the middle on the left is a wonderful, square-nosed snarling hound with a roaring lion below. Just above the arm of the torso at bottom right there’s a hoopoe, a colourful bird found across Africa, Asia, and Europe, notable for their distinctive “crown” of feathers. Beneath the hoopoe there’s a bird of prey, a hare with many horns, a hermit crab emerging from its shell and on the far right, at the bottom, a squirel contemplates a nut.
The other prints here make this, along with the one below, feel the most ordinary of Snijders study sheets. Two male faces, 3 eyes, 2 ears, a calf, fox, a chameleon, a horse’s head. Michael Snijders has added in a man behind a sea monster playing a lute.
Feet in Roman sandals and hands. In an empty gap Snijders could resist adding a monkey with a pear.
Heads of children and women. In the middle two pairs of animals are fighting. On the right, a child bears the weight of a heavy globe on his or her back whilst the man above shouts.
At top left a centaur is attacking a well dressed man with a spear whilst holding a lionskin. There are six male heads, the largest of which at bottom left is the legendary Flemish artist and diplomat from the old Duchy of Brabant, a former state of the Holy Roman Empire, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). It’s a younger looking Rubens. He would have been an old man or dead when Snijders made (or more likely copied) this portrait.
At the top, just left of centre, we can see the long haired head of Albrecht Dürer. Snijders has copied the German painter and grand theorist of the Renaissance from a portrait by the Renaissance painter, Melchior Lorch. At the bottom left of frame there’s a puffer fish to the right of which, and between three baby heads (each with 4 circles), Snijders has added a half-fish-half-walrus creation which snarls at a disemodied portrait of a girl. At the bottom on the right a long-necked, bearded man leans into frame, staring angrily and hard at two dogs fighting. Above bearded man, is the head of a shaggy dog faced man with horns sits on a shallow plinth.
This study sheet features “rarities”. Mythical creatures and fantasy monstrosities direct from the long dead mind of Snijders. With his two leaping hounds at his feet, a soldier whose head sprouts antlers runs in fright from a prancing, half-man-half-horse centaur carrying in it’s arms a damsel in distress. The centaur is in some kind of confrontation (if not a a fight) with a midget who has animal legs and a snake tail. The midget monster is waving a flaming stick and, behind him a lion leaps away. An owl with human legs is, quite understandably scarpering away from this confusing scenario. Above the owl-man’s head is a caption that reads, “Adieu brother”. At the bottom left there’s a basilisk (a cock with a snake for a tail) looking at his reflection in a mirror and there’s (a pair of?) Siamese twins in the bottom right corner. But all this isn’t the main event. Forefront and centre, between the Siamese twins and the snake-tailed chicken, stand two disjointed midgets, one with a monkey face the other with the legs of a dog, fighting it out with swords and shields. One of the Siamese twins is looking away.