LOOK closely at Abraham Mignon's ``Still Life with Fruit, Fish and a Nest,'' and you'll find a very unstill life. Under the sumptuous pyramid of translucent green and purple grapes, scarlet apples, dusky peaches and melons rest a scaly green toad, a gold snake, a flickering lizard, and a catch of glistening silver fish. Birds swoop down over a nest of eggs.
There are mysterious depths and symbolism beneath the lovely surfaces of Mignon's work, one of 44 paintings in the exhibition ``Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection.
The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art, goes on tour from here and will be seen at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from Oct. 18 through Dec. 31.
Still-life painting, historically considered the Cinderella of the painting world, came into being as a genre separate from landscape, history, portrait, and other kinds of painting in the late 16th century.
This show, drawn from the total of 70 paintings collected by the family of Senator John Heinz III of Pennsylvania, is described by the gallery as one of the finest and largest private collections of rare Dutch, Flemish, and German still lifes dating from the late 16th to the early 19th centuries.
The public has rarely had a gimpse of many of these works, because they were privately owned and were not been exhibited.
In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, and Alan Shestack, director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, agree in a joint statement:
``Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings have always had a special appeal to American taste. Because artists such as Raphaelle Peale and William Harnett were inspired by the realism and illusionism of these works, and because connoisseurs and collectors admired their technical virtuosity, Dutch and Flemish still lifes have become incorporated into our cultural heritage.''
The subtle strawberries in Raphaelle Peale's ``Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup'' from an earlier Peale show at the Gallery might have been inspired by Osias Beert the Elder's ``Vase of Flowers with Dishes of Fruit and a Drinking Glass,'' in which a bowl of scarlet strawberries forms a composition with an echoing red bowl of cherries and a vase of softly colored tulips.
As Arthur Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery's curator for this show, wrote in the accompanying catalog: ``The artists who created these [Golden Age works] wanted to convey the delicacy of a rose petal, the sheen of a silver urn, the rich textural surface of a lemon, and the shimmer of satin drapery because they felt that the essence of still-life painting is found in the illusion of reality.''
Among the major 17th-century still-life artists included in this show are: Balthasar van der Ast, Osias Beert the Elder, Jan Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Claesz, Floris van Dijck, William Claesz Heda, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Jan van Kessel the Elder, Cerstiaen Luyckx, Abraham Mignon, and Harmen van Steenwyck.
MR. WHEELOCK, who is the Gallery's curator of northern baroque painting, says that ``underlying these paintings is more than just realism.
``I think that's one of the things that's difficult for modern audiences always to appreciate,'' he explains.
The artists ``loved to paint these objects in a very realistic way,'' he continues, ``not only because they're great craftsmen, but also because by doing that you were able to represent God's bounty, his creations in as true a way as possible.
``You have a great fascination at this time with the enormity of God's creation, and partly this fascination comes from a long-standing interest, but it is enhanced ... by all the explorations in the new world. And suddenly Europe is finding that God's bounty and creations are so much more extensive than they had ever imagined.
``All these new plants, blossoms, animals, shells, people that they never knew existed were suddenly being brought into Eruope. And part of the whole discovery of all this reinforced this sense of what extraordinary things God had done, that we have yet to understand.
``At the same time you have a fascination with what's called this whole evolution of the devlopment of scientific naturalism; so it reinforces this interest....''
IN addition, Wheelock points out, these were often strong Calvinists who felt that ``you can admire God's creation all you want, but you should remember that the great feast - the sensual pleasures of taste, touch, smell - were very transitory.
``Thoughout this exhibition you will find sublte reminders of the transitoriness of life, momento morea, blossoms that are loosing their petals, insects that are eating the fruit.
``These elements again remind us that, however great God's gifts, we should remember that true appreciation of God's grandeur is more than just appreciating the sensual elements surrounding one's existence.''
Included in the exhibition are examples of ``vanitas'' paintings, which indicated the ephemeral nature of human life with such symbols as those found in Edwert Collier's ``Vanitas with Skull and Coronet'' or Johannese Cuvenes the Elder's ``Vanitas with Green Drape and Skull.''
Also included are examples of trompe l'oeil illusionism, floral works and ``breakfast pieces'' - studies like Floris Gerritsz van Schooten's tranquil ``Breakfast of Mussels, Cheese, Bread and Porridge.''
Professor Ingvar Bergstr"om of Goteberg University in Sweden, an authority on still lifes of the golden age, wrote the catalog entries on the paintings involved.
Prof. Bergstrom says, ``This collection has been formed with so much knowledge and so much taste. It really rivals the other ones, and contains quite a number of great masterpieces.''