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Insects in Art

A word of warning
Abraham Mignon, <i>Still Life with Fruit, Foliage, and Insects</i>, about 1669, oil on canvas
zoom Abraham Mignon, Still Life with Fruit, Foliage, and Insects, about 1669, oil on canvas


Luscious peaches. Plump grapes. Succulent plums. The Dutch painter Abraham Mignon created a visual feast.

But take a closer look. That fruit isn’t as delectable as it seemed at first glance. In fact, a lot of it is beginning to rot. And the scene is teeming with bugs. Ants are crawling on the peaches. A furry caterpillar creeps along the branch of purple plums near a white butterfly. From behind the striped gourd, a grasshopper peers out. Hidden in the foreground shadows, a black and orange insect climbs onto a piece of broken stonework. Near some acorns in the background, a dozen inchworms dangle in the air or crawl along the branches. And besides all these insects, there are several snails slithering about.

Why would an artist want to include rotting fruit and countless insects in a painting? For Dutch people in the seventeenth century, when this work was made, still-life paintings often had symbolic meaning. The spoiled fruit, damaged leaves, and crumbling architecture all refer to the idea that in time everything must pass away. The caterpillars and butterflies symbolize the life cycle. And many of the other insects are associated with decay. Still lifes that carried this message were known as vanitas (Latin for “vanity”) paintings. They were especially popular with the middle class in seventeenth-century Holland.

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1. Ants crawl over the rotten peaches.
2. A small butterfly rests on a branch.
3. In the shadows, a tiny insect climbs a broken piece of stonework.


March 2006