Jean Riechers collection: reviving the still life
Starting in the 1950s, impassioned scholars Yvonne and Jean Riechers assembled a collection of Old Master paintings, seeking out little-known or forgotten artists, and giving fresh glory to a long-discredited genre.
Members of a family of lacemaking industrialists, Jean Riechers (1898-1974) and his wife Yvonne (1905-1986) directed a world-famous company established in Calais, which from its creation in the 19th century supplied the international luxury ready-to-wear and haute couture sector. The husband and wife had another passion: Old Master paintings.
In 1934, an exhibition entitled "Les Peintres de la réalité" at the Orangerie, Paris, brought the French still life into line with modern taste. Some twenty years later, Charles Sterling published a major book on Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present (1952). At the end of the Second World War, Yvonne and Jean Riechers began to assemble "one of the most important and original art collections in France," according to the expert Stéphane Pinta. "They had a penchant for still lifes from the first half of the 17th century by Flemish, French and various German artists." The collection contained still lifes by Protestant Paris painters in particular. The couple bought from the dealer Curt Benedict and the François Heim, Marcus and Pardo galleries. Jean Riechers carried on a correspondence with art historian Charles Sterling and developed a special connection with the curators at the Louvre. This close relationship led the couple to donate a Calvary by David Téniers the Elder to the museum in 1972, and a still life by Juan de Espinosa in 1973. Their children continued this generous impulse, enriching the Louvre with a group of still lifes by Isaac Soreau, Jacques Linard and Sébastien Stoskopff through a donation in lieu of estate tax in 1981-1982.
Love of life and vanitas
Flemish and Dutch still-life painters followed two movements: one connected with the five senses, with variations on "laden tables" mingling luxury objects, fruits and flowers, both domestic and exotic; the other, with a deliberately simpler staging, evoking the swift passing of time and the futility of attachment to the things of this world. The Riechers included both movements in their collection. The former included an iconic work by Osias Beert the Elder [CP1] and one by a major figure among the Flemish painters who gathered in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in Paris: Jean-Michel Picart. Considered a pioneer in still-life painting as an independent genre, Osias Beert was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in 1602. With his impeccable glaze technique, he achieved transparencies giving the illusion of reality, and his compositions were vibrant with a wealth of colours. In Plat d'artichauts, coupe de framboises, timbale de mûres et coupe de cerises (€80,000/120,000), he included a silver tripod saltcellar and dishes in Chinese porcelain also found in numerous other works. In the centre we see an open artichoke: an aphrodisiac, according to 16th-century treatises on botany. The Flemish artist Daniel Soreau, established in Germany (whose studio was taken over at his death by Stoskopff), promoted the genre in Eastern Europe. His son Isaac spent part of his career in Antwerp before moving to Frankfurt. Exponents of Stillleben, the Strasbourg artists Sébastien Stoskopff and Georg Flegel favoured a more austere style, dwelling on the moral aspect. Both are represented in the Riechers collection. There is an admirable work by Stoskopff, Nature morte à la volaille lardée… (€40,000/60,000) dating from his Paris period, ca. 1635, with numerous symbols of Christ: a glass of red wine, bread, a knife, a saltcellar and a bitter orange, which was served with meat at that time. Meanwhile Flegel chose a frugal herring, apple and onion, contrasting them with the richness of the silverware pokal (€30,000/40,000). Another painting by Flegel, which once belonged to the Riechers, Nature morte au flacon de vin, à la miche de pain et aux petites poissons (1637), was bought by the Louvre in 1981.
Flemish and French Protestant artists were influential members of the Saint-Germain fair in Paris, the first of the year, which was held between February and Easter until 1789. Here luxury items were sold, including paintings from Flanders. A covered market could accommodate up to three hundred and forty merchants' booths. At that time, Jean-Michel Picart, an artist and dealer, played a major role in the introduction of still lifes, as artists from the North on their way to Italy would deposit or create numerous paintings during their stay. For his part, painter and picture dealer François Garnier bought a booth in Rue Mercière, in 1627. Panier de cerises et branche d'abricots (€80,000/100,000) is characteristic of his clean-lined style, which influenced Chardin. Belonging to the same genre, various bouquets of flowers are given greater worth and are more charming to the eye, although they too convey a moral lesson with their insects and faded blooms. While there are few of them in the collection, one of them, by Jan Van den Hecke I, deserves a closer look (€15,000/20,000). Its rendering is freer, and the composition is remarkable: the corner of the stone entablature creates a diagonal which slightly throws the arrangement of flowers off centre – these being contained in a wickerwork basket, like the fruits of multiple still lifes...