This is an important rediscovered work by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, missing for almost eighty years, and only coming to light in Autumn 2011.
Laurens Bol, who was the first scholar to write in depth about Bosschaert, placed it in the artist's Utrecht period, from 1616 to 1619, solely on the basis of the description of it in the Hermitage catalogue.1 Four other paintings by Bosschaert of flowers in glass vessels in stone niches are known, all of them from his Utrecht period: formerly private collection, Egypt, formerly Eugene Slatter Gallery, London; Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst; The Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna (see fig. 1); and formerly Berlin, Th. Bauer.2 The Copenhagen picture is particularly similar to the present one in the architecture of the grey marble niche, and in both a fallen rose stem lies on the floor of the niche next to the glass vessel. Since it is dated 1618, a dating to the same year for this picture seems likely, as Fred Meijer has kindly concurred.3 Although in most respects a pioneer of flower painting in the Northern Netherlands, and a great innovator, Bosschaert probably borrowed the device of setting flowers in a glass vase in a stone niche from Roelandt Savery, who had being using it since at least 1603, and who settled in Utrecht in 1618, about two years after Bosschaert. This lends further support for the dating of this work to that year: when he moved to Breda in 1619, Bosschaert replaced the niche device with the arched window-opening in which he set his flower-pieces before a distant landscape.
Bosschaert seems to have used similar glass beakers with prunts in works from around 1610 onwards, although unusually the prunts are here lavishly tipped with gold. Blooms familiar to us from his repertoire are found in the present picture. In other works, including the almost identical example in the Liechtenstein Museum picture, the composition is surmounted by a blue iris, whose vertical structure helps to fill the arch of the niche. His beloved roses are found here, as are Lily-of-the-Valley, Forget-Me-Not, Narcissus, and, unusually, just one tulip. Characteristic of Bosschaert, and an achievement unmatched among his followers, is the extraordinary denseness and complexity of the center of the composition, which as a result gives a wholly convincing expression of depth. The massed blooms, leaves and stems are however ordered with an entirely coherent logic, so that the stem of the tulip can be followed down along a diagonal as it vanishes and reappears, then vanishes again before we find it seen through the glass of the beaker.
An inscription on the reverse in a 17th century French hand: Jean de Carpentier [?]; may record the name of an early owner.
It is not known when or how this picture entered the Russian Imperial collections housed in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The earliest record of it is from the first Hermitage catalogue, published in 1773, when it was thought to be by Abraham Breughel, probably due to a misunderstanding of Bosschaert's monogram (the reverse of the copper bears an enlarged transcription of the monogram, with an inscription in a 19th century hand: Abraham Breughel). The attribution to Breughel was retained in the 1797, 1863 and 1870 catalogues, but by 1901, when a much more comprehensive catalogue was published with detailed descriptions of each painting and accurate transcriptions of signatures, Bosschaert's authorship had been recognised (in a copy of the 1797 catalogue kept in the Hermitage the entry for no. 930 is annotated "Bosschaert"). In the 1901 catalogue, acquisitions known to be have been made by the Empress Catherine the Great, and by subsequent Tsars from Paul I to Nicolas II, are marked with their Imperial cyphers, but this picture bears no such hieroglyph, suggesting that it entered the collection before the reign of Catherine the Great.
Laurens Bol, writing in 1960, states that the then director, Prof. Artamonov, confirmed to him that the painting "no longer belongs to the State Museum in Leningrad."4 Sales of paintings and drawings took place from The Hermitage at the instigation of the Soviet government following a decision taken in 1928. It would be an understatement to say that members of the curatorial staff were most unhappy about this initiative, undertaken to bolster the finances of the USSR, but the sales went ahead anyway, largely between 1930 and 1932, after which they ceased following disappointing results. Some major paintings were sold to consortia of dealers, and both paintings and drawings were sold at auction: the paintings in sales at Lepke in Berlin, and the drawings at C.G. Boerner in Leipzig. No Bosschaert is to be found in the Lepke sale catalogues, nor is one referred to in published accounts of the sales to consortia. We are however grateful to Elena Solomakha, archivist at the Hermitage, who has kindly confirmed that an Ambrosius Bosschaert, with no medium or measurements given, left The Hermitage on the 14 November 1932, and is listed as one of the paintings earmarked for sale.5 The present work is the only Bosschaert recorded in the collections of the Hermitage (or indeed in any Russian collection to the present day), and the inventory number cited by Dr. Solomakha: 1948; corresponds with that painted on the reverse of the present picture, thus confirming that they must be the same work. Since Bosschaert was much less highly regarded in the first half of the 20th Century than he is today, and he had not at that time been the subject of art-historical study, it is perhaps not surprising that no further trace of the picture has been found until recently; moreover, much documentation from before the Second World War was lost or destroyed. While it is not known how it entered his collection, it is however certain that it was in the collection of the grandfather of the present owners. Born circa 1880, he studied mining at the University of Clausthal-Zellerfeld. From 1904 he worked as Königlich Preussischer Bergassesor and Handelsatteche (Trade Attaché) at the German embassy in St. Petersburg, and it is thought likely that he remained in this post until 1918. It may well be that he came to know this picture during his lengthy sojourn there. After the end of the First World War he returned to Berlin, where, besides working as a mining superintendent, he became Director of the Fremdenpolizei (police force for foreigners). He remained in the German Civil Service until 1933, when he was removed from his positions by the new regime, and began to work as a consultant to a number of international banks investing in the mining sector. During the course of this employment, he travelled widely on business: to Russia, China, Japan and the Americas. In 1939 he returned to Germany where he worked within the German mining sector until 1945. After the end of the Second World War, he was employed by the American Military Administration in Wiesbaden, where he died in 1947. The present painting remained in Berlin in the possession of his descendants until the present day, although its identity as a work by Bosschaert was forgotten.
When consigned, this painting was covered in a layer of heavily discolored and very uneven varnish, which appeared to have flowed in streams down the painting's surface and then had coagulated and developed its own pattern of broad open craquelure, disfiguring the appearance of the painting. It was found that the varnish was easily removable, and this work was undertaken by Simon Folkes, who uncovered a virtually undisturbed original paint surface underneath (see fig. 2, which shows the painting with all varnish and a few old retouchings removed).
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