CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

National Gallery of Art Acquires 17th-Century Nautilus Cup

The National Gallery of Art announced the acquisition of its first nautilus cup. The the cup (ca. 1650, etching; ca. 1670, mount) may have been made for a member of the Swedish royal family.

Dutch and Swedish artists, Nautilus Cup, ca. 1650 (etching), ca. 1670 (mount)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The pinkish white shell, shaped like an oval bowl, is etched with an elaborate design that includes monstrous fish and fantastic birds amid vegetation. The decoration was likely made by a specialist working in Amsterdam around 1650. The shell then made its way to Sweden, where an unknown silversmith created the intricate mount featuring a siren gliding over the ocean. The cup appears to have been one of a pair commissioned during the late seventeenth century by a collector in Sweden—perhaps even the king. Both cups were recorded in the collection of King Carl XV in the nineteenth century.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nautilus cups were among the most treasured objects in chambers of art and wonders (Kunstkammern)—collections of natural marvels and skillfully crafted artworks that became popular with princely collectors in Europe.  The cups speak to the emerging globalism of the seventeenth-century economy: the shell comes from the oceans of the Indo-Pacific region and would have traveled to Europe on a Dutch trade ship.