Private Collection, Germany, since the 19th century
By descent, until 2008
Anon. Sale, Koller, Zurich, Switzerland, 19 September 2008, Lot 3014
Private Collection, United Kingdom, 2008 - 2014
A bouquet of flowers is displayed in a simple, glass beaker, standing on a table. The principal blooms comprise two striped tulips, a red and white carnation, a marigold and two varieties of rose, which radiate outwards from a single stem of blue iris, forming a vertical axis. These striking specimens are interspersed with smaller flowers including forget-me-nots, a columbine, pansies, scillas, bluebells, a bright yellow kingcup and cyclamen, together with a variety of foliage. Close inspection reveals a bumble bee and a Painted Lady butterfly that mingle with the floral beauties, gathering nectar. A Red Admiral and a fly have alighted on the tabletop, upon which rests an exotic, black and white seashell.
The first artist to specialise in flower painting, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder founded a dynasty of flower painters which included his three sons, Ambrosius the Younger, Johannes and Abraham, as well as his brother-in-law, Balthasar van der Ast. Bosschaert the Elder’s earliest dated painting of a flower vase, executed in Middelburg in 1605, is one of the first examples of flower painting as an independent genre. However, he was not alone in this field as several other artists working in different artistic centres began painting flower-pieces around the same time, probably derived from similar sources. In 1604, Karel van Mander wrote that Jacques de Gheyn, then working in The Hague or Leiden, had painted floral arrangements, one of which was sold to Rudolf II. Roelandt Saverij’s earliest known flower paintings were produced in Amsterdam or Prague in 1603, possibly inspired by de Gheyn’s vases of flowers in a niche. Jan Brueghel the Elder, working in Antwerp, executed his first vase of flowers in 1605, a year after visiting Prague, where he may have seen still lifes by Saverij or de Gheyn.
The sudden emergence of flower painting at the beginning of the seventeenth century is closely connected with the fascination felt by contemporaries for flowers. Throughout the sixteenth century, interest in botany had been growing and numerous herbals and florilegia had been published. Botanists and private collectors sought eagerly to acquire unusual and exotic varieties, many of which were newly imported from the Balkans, the Near and Far East and the New World. Species such as the iris, narcissus, hyacinth, anemone, fritillary and, above all, the tulip were collectors’ items, which had only recently been brought into cultivation and were mostly to be found in specialist botanical gardens. The rarity and expense of such living specimens must therefore have restricted artists from having easy access to them. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s correspondence with his principal patron, Cardinal Borromeo, is most revealing in this respect and provides a valuable insight into the practice of flower painting at that time. In one letter, Brueghel relates that he had to make a special journey to Brussels in order to portray rare flowers from life that were not available in Antwerp (i), while in another, he commented that certain blooms were “not easy for me to find in gardens, such flowers are too important to have in the house” (ii). We also get some idea of the high value attached by contemporaries to real and painted flowers from Brueghel’s comments in his letter of August 1606 to Borromeo regarding the flower-piece that he has just completed, in which he remarked that “Under the flowers I have painted a jewel with coins, [and] with rare objects from the sea. It is up to your honour to judge whether or not flowers surpass gold and jewels…” (iii) As this last remark suggests, sea shells from distant oceans were also highly prized items for the collector’s cabinet.
It seems likely that some of the earliest efforts at rendering flowers were produced in response to requests by plant enthusiasts eager to have a record of their precious specimens. By the same token, artists must have benefited from the work of botanists and the owners of great gardens. Crispijn van de Passe the Younger, for example, in the introduction to his florilegium, Hortus Floridus (Utrecht, 1614), acknowledges the twenty-seven “lovers of flowers and herbs” from Utrecht, Amsterdam, Haarlem and Leiden who had given him access to the rare species depicted in his publication. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to discover that the prosperous city of Middelburg, where Bosschaert the Elder began his artistic career, was renowned for its botanical gardens. Among its most important was that belonging to the botanist, Matthias Lobelius, a friend and colleague of the famous horticulturalist, Carolus Clusius, who was the director of the botanical garden at the university in Leiden.
Previously unrecorded, this exquisite and well-preserved little painting has only recently come to light in a European private collection, where it has been since the nineteenth century. The picture is an important addition to the oeuvre of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder and is characteristic of the work from his early Middelburg period. Flowers of various species have been arranged in a compact and symmetrical manner. Their vivid colours and varied shapes stand out boldly against the uniformly dark background. Each bloom is faithfully rendered from nature, almost like a portrait, so that its distinctive features are easily recognisable. Every petal, sepal, stamen and leaf is delineated with an almost scientific precision, as is the intricate pattern of the butterflies’ wings. The artist has also lavished great care upon the glass vessel, capturing the glints of light that sparkle on the knobbly prunts on its stem, thereby achieving a marvellous sense of translucency. The smooth surface of the copper panel, a medium often favoured by Bosschaert, is ideally suited to his detailed technique and enhances the luminous effect of the multiple layers of subtle glazes.
Bosschaert’s early still lifes almost invariably depict a tightly composed vase of flowers, or blompot, as it was called in the seventeenth century. The earliest bouquets are characterised by a somewhat crowded appearance and are lacking in spatial clarity: the flowers are evenly lit and barely overlap with one another. A still life of flowers, dating from 1608, signals a change in Bosschart’s style and demonstrates a more sophisticated understanding of pictorial space. The latter, which portrays an arrangement of flowers in a roemer, was sold at Sotheby’s in 1985 (iv). In this painting, air seems to flow more freely around and between the individual items, while the careful distribution of light and shade produces a tangible sense of depth and volume. Many of the same features are present in our painting which dates from two years later. Apart from the obvious similarities of subject matter, such as the glass vase and the black and white seashell, it also displays a comparable sense of spaciousness. The foremost flowers are brightly lit, while others cast in shade, recede towards the back of the bouquet, while some blooms are partially hidden by others, creating a natural impression. Later in his career, Bosschaert varied the background to his flower-pieces, sometimes placing his vases within a niche and, on other occasions, standing on a ledge before a landscape that extends into the far distance.
Ambrosius Bosschaert was born in Antwerp in 1573, the son of Ambrosius Bosschaert, who was also a painter, but by whom no work is known. For religious reasons his family emigrated to Middelburg around 1587. Between 1593 and 1613 Bosschaert was a member and several times dean of the Guild of St. Luke, where he was recorded both as a painter and art dealer. Around 1604, he married Maria van der Ast. The couple had at least six children, of whom three sons, Ambrosius the Younger, Johannes and Abraham became flower painters. Their daughter, Maria, eventually married the painter, Jeronymus Sweerts, son of the famous botanist and engraver, Emanuel Sweerts. Following the death of Maria van der Ast’s father in 1609, her younger brother, Balthasar, probably came to live with his sister and brother-in-law and took instruction from Ambrosius. Bosschaert’s business must have been profitable, enabling him to buy a large house in Middelburg in 1611. However, he left Middelburg a few years later and after brief periods of residence in Amsterdam in 1614 and Bergen-op-Zoom in 1615, he lived in Utrecht from late 1615 to 1619. He finally moved to Breda in 1619 and died suddenly in 1621, while visiting The Hague to deliver a flower piece to Prince Maurits’s butler, for which he was paid the impressive sum of 1,000 guilders.
i Letter from Brueghel to Ercole Bianchi dated 14 April, 1606. See: Stefania Bedoni, Jan Brueghel in Italia e il collezionismo del Seicento, Florence, l983, p. 109.
ii Quoted by Beatrijs Brenninkmeijer-de Rooij in Roots of seventeenth-century Flower Painting, 1996, p. 51, note 21. Letter from Brueghel to Ercole Bianchi dated 26 September, 1608.
iii Quoted by Beatrijs Brenninkmeijer-de Rooij in Roots of seventeenth-century Flower Painting, 1996, p. 50, note 18.
iv Ambrosius Bosschaert I, Tulips, roses, fritillaries and other flowers in a vase, signed and dated 1608, on panel, 50.5 x 36 cm, Sotheby’s, London, 11 December 1985, Lot. 43.