Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton belonged to a famous Brussels painter’s family of Scottish origin, whose members worked as court painters in Central Europe. He specialised in forest floor still lifes, hence his sobriquet “Thistle Hamilton”.
De Hamilton was influenced by the Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/20 – 1678) who had invented this new subject in painting: so-called forest floors or nature pieces. These were accurate depictions of a micro-cosmos of wild flowers and thistles, butterflies, insects, frogs, toads and even snakes.
About Carl Wilhelm de Hamilton
Brussels 1668 – 1754 Augsburg
Also known as Charles William de Hamilton.
He specialised in forest floors with lizards and butterflies, hence his surname “Thistle Hamilton”.
Son and pupil of James de Hamilton (circa 1640 – 1720) in Brussels. When still a boy of approximately ten years old James’ family fled from Scotland to escape Cromwell’s persecution; following the execution of King Charles I (January 1649) the Scots had proclaimed his son Charles II (1630 – 1685) as king, so Cromwell and his Parliamentarian troops had invaded Scotland in 1650/51. There are no securely attributed paintings known by James de Hamilton, who reportedly was a painter of flowers and fruit.
James’ elder brother or possibly cousin, the animal painter Francis de Hamilton (before 1640 – in or after 1695) had a long career at several German courts.
Our Carl Wilhelm was probably court painter in Baden-Baden between 1699 and 1707. Subsequently he worked for Prince-Bishop Alexander Sigismund von Pfalz-Neuburg in Augsburg. De Hamilton remained in Augsburg after the Prince-Bishop’s death in 1737.
In Augsburg our painter strongly influenced Johann Falch (1687 – 1727), who passed away long before the Hamilton; he was only fourty years old when he died.
Carl Wilhelm’s brothers also studied painting with their father.
- His elder brother, Philipp Ferdinand (Brussels 1664 – 1750 Vienna) was an animal painter, especially of birds. He also painted some equestrian portraits. At the age of 31, in 1705, he was appointed court painter (“Kammermaler”) to the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I (1678 – 1711) in Vienna. He remained in Vienna until his death in 1750, working also for the successors of Joseph I, Charles VI (1685 – 1740) and Maria Theresa (1717 – 1780), and for the Austrian nobility.
- His younger brother, Johann Georg (1672 – 1737) had already been appointed court painter in Vienna in 1689, worked for a time in Berlin and at Wittingau Castle (1709 – 1718) and was summoned back to Vienna in 1718, where he also remained until his death. He is best known for his portraits of horses and for his hunting scenes.
About Nature Pieces
Around 1650, the empirical investigation into the behaviour and physiology of butterflies, snakes, toads, lizards, chameleons, hedgehogs, etc. is detectable on a pan-European scale. Animals were either collected and housed in jars, or observed in their native environment or in specially designed and enclosed habitats.
During the second half of the 17th century the Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (Nijmegen 1619/20 – 1678 Amsterdam) invented a new genre, a new subject of paintings: so-called "Nature Pieces" (“bosgrondjes” in dutch): a small and bizarre micro-cosmos set against an often Italianate landscape background. These forest floors represent a mysterious dark close-up of the shadowy undergrowth of forest floors, giving detailed views of wild flowers, weeds, thistles and mushrooms, animated by butterflies, strange insects, reptiles, toads, frogs and lizards.
In 1648 van Schrieck had travelled to Italy with Mathias Withoos and with Willem van Aelst. In Rome they had joined the Schildersbent, an association of Northern painters, mostly Dutch and Flemish, notorious for its bacchic rituals and opposition to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. Here van Schrieck’s "Bentname" had been "Snuffelaar", the "Snuffler" because of his habit of roaming the countryside in search of plants, lizards and other animals.
Back in Holland van Schrieck, who had married a wealthy man's daughter in 1664, had a small estate outside Amsterdam, where he bred snakes and other animals.
Many important Dutch artists from the 2nd half of the 17th century and from the early 18thcentury painted the same subjects and were equally influenced by Otto Marseus van Schrieck, such as Rachel Ruysch, Abraham Begeyn, Willem van Aelst, Elias van den Broeck, Abraham Mignon, Melchior de Hondecoeter and Nicolaes Lachtropius. His influence also extended to Italy, where he influenced both Paolo Porpora and Giuseppe Recco, and to Germany and Austria, where his art had a serious impact on the different members of the Hamilton family.
These forest floors hold of course a part of Vanitas symbolism: the butterflies stand for the spirit and also for recklessness, while the snakes, toads, frogs and lizards refer to death.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because the attraction of such strange and exotic forest floors has never attenuated since the latter part of the Baroque period. There was just an excellent exhibition about forest floors at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.