Wautier certainly knew the work of Daniel Seghers (1590 – 1661), who specialized in the compositional format of a floral garland adorning a trompe-l’oeil image or statue, as if placed on an altar. However, while Seghers preferred roses and tulips for his bouquets, Wautier included many more diverse species: this garland includes carnations, marigold, cornflower, African marigold, daisy, foxglove, sweet pea, and hibiscus. This diversity suggests that she looked to Seghers’ teacher Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568 – 1625), who also favored exotic combinations of blooms.
The two animal skulls that support the swag of flowers contribute to the memento mori theme common to still lifes: although the flowers bloom and insects gather to enjoy them, all things in nature must eventually die. At the same time, Wautier suggests with her precise rendering of the petals and leaves and the lifelike activity of the insects that as an artist she can defy nature by both bringing beautiful things to life and preserving them in their thriving state forever. Like many floral still lifes, Wautier’s includes flowers that bloom in different seasons, meaning that this exact bouquet could never exist as such in reality.
The now-untraced pendant to the present lot shares a very similar composition, almost identical dimensions, and is also signed and dated 1652. The similarity of the two paintings and their trompe-l’oeil decorative quality suggests that a patron or patrons commissioned the pair, or perhaps a series, from Wautier in order to hang them somewhere specific. The animal skulls also recall the Bucranium, the ancient Roman decorative motif of oxen skulls found on temple friezes in reference to actual sacrificial animals. Combined with the dragonfly, which symbolizes the end of life, and the butterfly, which connotes Christ’s resurrection, the imagined flowers and skulls may have communicated a message of redemptive sacrifice for a particular viewer.
Whatever its intended function, the sophisticated iconography and elegant naturalism of this still life prove that Wautier was equally skilled in several genres. As the only traceable still life securely attributed to this pioneering female artist, the present lot occupies an important place in early modern art history.
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