Ambrosius Bosschaert spent most of his career in Middelburg, where he settled with his family in around 1589-90, but after 1613 led a more peripatetic existence, moving to Amsterdam, Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht and Breda. He was both a painter and an art dealer, and the latter must have occupied a good deal of his time because his paintings are quite rare and his first dated work is from 1605, when he was already 32 years old. Although his daughter Maria described him as a painter of flowers and fruit,1 very few fruit pieces survive. However, his flower pieces influenced a generation of painters, including his three sons and Balthasar van der Ast, his brother-in-law; were the model for painting in Middelburg through the 1650s; and they are still what Bosschaert is known for today.
The Still Life with Tulips, Roses and Narcissi in a Glass Beaker embodies the brilliance and clarity that characterize the finest of Bosschaert's pictures. He arranges the flowers in a simple studded glass beaker set on a ledge against a dark background. The flowers, many of which though common today, were extremely rare in the early seventeenth century. Included here are pink roses, the highly prized and expensive flame tulips, a variety of narcissi, a pink cyclamen with its variegated leaves, a deep red autumn pheasant's eye and a large yellow double kingcup (or marsh marigold). A large, rather bold looking fly has staked out the right side of the ledge, while a caterpillar creeps along the stem of a blue columbine at the left and a small butterfly is perched on the flame tulip at the right.
Bosschaert arranges the flowers in a roughly symmetrical manner, anchoring the composition with the large rose at the top, the two tulips at the sides and the double kingcup below. He creates a sense of space and volume, by setting the fat fly in the foreground and the beaker further back on the ledge. He uses the flowers themselves to reinforce this sense of space, bending the two sprigs of lily of the valley so they curve around the beaker itself and turning the roses away from the viewer. At the upper right he adds a sprig of rosemary, which points backward, leading our eye into the depths of the background.
Fred Meijer has suggested a date of 1614 or slightly earlier for The Still Life with Tulips, Roses and Narcissi, based on its relationship to the Still Life with a Basket of Flowers in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Still Life with Flowers in a Roemer in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1) which are both dated to that year.2 While there are no dated paintings between 1610 and these two pictures, the London picture is closely related to the present work in its overall composition as well as specific motifs. Both are small coppers (the London painting is slightly larger, measuring 26 by 20.5 cm. or 10 1/4 by 8 1/8 inches) and depict colorful bouquets in glass vessels. Many of the same flowers are repeated, including a yellow and white polyanthus narcissus at the center, a rose seen from behind, and bluebells, as well as a caterpillar, a butterfly and an equally impertinent fly. However, in addition to the specific motifs, the compositions are very similar in their striking stability and balance. In contrast to Bosschaert's early paintings, these bouquets are denser and more fully integrated, with no large holes to lead our eyes away. The flowers seem to fill the space, but without any sense of crowding.
We can only fully appreciate the brilliance of Bosschaert's technique in The Still Life with Tulips, Roses and Narcissi because of its near pristine condition. While he presents most of the flowers from a characteristic point of view, which harkens back to the early botanical illustrators, he is not afraid to layer one on top of another for the sake of the overall composition. His brushstroke is remarkably fine and virtually disappears, so that all we are aware of are the flowers themselves. Light shimmers off the smooth surfaces of the tulip in the upper left and the thick leaves of the rosemary. Just to the left is a small hole that an insect has eaten in the soft petal of the large pink rose.
Although a great deal has been written about the possible meaning of seventeenth century flower pieces, with an emphasis on their ephemeral nature and the passing of time, in looking at a work like this we are more struck by the beauty of the blooms and Bosschaert's skill in depicting them. The combination of flowers is, of course, one that could never occur in nature, for some are early spring flowers and others much later blooms. It is a testament to Bosschaert's artistry that he is able to combine them so convincingly that we never question the reality of what he sets forth.
We are very grateful to Fred G. Meijer for his help in cataloguing this picture.
1. Translated into English by L.J. Bol, see Literature above, p. 14.
2. F. G. Meijer, email communication, November 10, 2008.
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