Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


FRIEDRICH HEIMERDINGER (Altona 1817 – Hamburg 1882)

High Life: A Trompe L’Oeil

signed Friedrich Heimerdinger and inscribed Hamburg and dated 1880 on the painted artist’s palette in the lower left, inscribed M r III in the lower right and signed Friedrich Heimerdinger on the stretcher

9 3/4 x 7 5/8 inches          (24.7 x 19.5 cm.)

The painted motif of a lifeless bird hung against a flat surface is found as early as the first century C.E. on the walls of Pompeian houses. [1] Examples of such were noted by Franciscus Junius in Der Schilderkonst der Oude, Middleberg 1641 and repeated by Samuel van Hoogstraten in his work on Dutch art from 1678. [2] High Life is a continuation of this long-standing tradition but it is also a vanitas. An exquisitely rendered yellow and white canary hangs from a delicate pink bow nailed into the lid of a Cuban cigar box stamped Havana. Framed by curling blue tape the canary’s beak points to the manufacturer’s label. It is titled High Life and comes from the factory of P. de Fanseca of the Vuelta Abajo region in Cuba (whose tobacco is considered the best in the world). A few nail heads protrude through the surface which has begun to crack. The vibrant coloring of the plush down of the bird’s body and silken texture of its feathers are starkly contrasted against the roughness of the box’s wooden surface. The message of the fallen bird tacked onto a box containing one of life’s momentary pleasures, underlined by the label High Life, could hardly be more explicit. Smoke as a vanitas symbol stemmed directly from Psalm 102:3, “For my days pass away like smoke”. [3] Life is fleeting but redemption can be found in the painting’s vivid illusionary qualities which demonstrate that beauty exists in the most humble of creatures and objects. 

Friedrich Heimerdinger was an artist best known for painting animals, still lifes and trompe l’oeil. He began his studies at the Academy of Düsseldorf under Ferdinand Theodor Hildebrandt from 1839 to 1842, followed by a period at the Art Academy in Munich from 1842-1845. He then settled in Hamburg where he established a very successful preparatory school for artists. He authored several books from 1857-1868 on the teaching of art at the preparatory school level. He exhibited at the Munich Glass Palace in 1869 as well as at the Art Academy in Vienna from 1869-1874. The Kunsthutte, Chemnitz possessed a still life by him titled Herbstfrüchte and the Kunsthalle, Hamburg owned Foxes Contesting Booty, 1848. His works were especially popular and sought after in England due to his meticulous technique and high finish. [4] The prominent employment of the English title High Life on the cigar box label is probably indicative that this painting was executed with the English market in mind.



[1] For an example and description see Andrew Oliver, “Unknown Artist, Three Dead Birds Hanging from a Nail”, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Deceptions and Illusions, October 13, 2002 – March 2, 2003, p. 149.

[2] Lynn Russell, “Jacob Biltius, A Trompe L’Oeil”, in Deceptions and Illusions, op. cit., p. 152, and see Hoogstraten’s Inleydingh tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst Anders de Zichtbaere Werelt…

[3] Raymond J. Kelly, III, To Be or Not to Be, Four Hundred Years of Vanitas Painting, exhibition catalogue, Flint Institute of Arts, Flint Michigan, 2006, p. 22.

[4] Biographical information taken from John Denison Champlin, Jr. & Charles C. Perkins, “Friedrich Heimerdinger” in Cyclopedia of Painters and Paintings, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, volume II, 1887, p. 226; Thieme- Becker, “Friedrich Heimerdinger” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, Veb. E.A. Seeman Verlag Leipzig, volume XVI, 1907, p. 282; “Friedrich Heimerdinger” in Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Kennikat Press, Inc., Port Washington, N.Y., volume III, 1964, p. 28; and E. Benezit, “Friedrich Heimerdinger”, in Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, Librairie Gründ, Paris, volume 5, 1976, p. 465.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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