THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
The causes for this explosion of interest in and production of flower painting from 1606 onwards are various. For Savery it was certainly the obsessive interest in the natural world of his patron in Prague, the Emperor Rudolf II, and the activities coterie of artists responding to it in media other than oil painting: for example in works on vellum by Jacques De Gheyn, Joris Hoefnagel and others, and in prints. For Jan Brueghel a key impetus came from his loyal patrons in Italy who had earlier promoted his career in the depiction of landscapes. In the work of these artists, and in that of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder in Middelburg, their developments as flower painters can be charted in a row of dated works from 1606 onwards.
It is generally accepted that Bosschaert is likely to have encountered Jan Brueghel and his work in 1606, because his flower pieces from that year onwards show an awareness of Brueghel’s style, and this contact must have been renewed in subsequent years, because as Bosschaert’s highly personal style develops, awareness of what Brueghel was doing is detectable in his work.1 That Bosschaert’s artistic personality was amenable to influence becomes clear from the works painted upon his arrival in Utrecht, which respond immediately to what Savery was doing there following his return from Prague.
A consideration of what Bosschaert was doing in the years before 1606 is therefore ill-served by examining the work of his peers of around that date and later. The production of images of floral art per se, and not as an adjunct to history painting, existed before the first decade of the 17th Century, but it was highly sporadic, especially in oil painting. Although produced in relative isolation in Münster in Westphalia, the flower paintings made by Ludger tom Ring in the early 1560s were – at least on the basis of what is known today - revolutionary, and unprecedented in Western art. Two works are dated 1562, and none is likely to date from much after 1565.2 The artist was from a family of painters active in Westphalia, and the vast majority of their output consisted of portraits. He does not appear to have had any immediate followers in the still life genre, and there is scant hard evidence for their particular popularity or for a traceable diaspora among collectors, for example in The Netherlands.
Tom Ring’s influence is however palpable in a group of five still life paintings of flowers in vases etc on pale stone ledges set against a dark background which are closely linked in style, subject matter and in the size and type of their panels. The panels are of Baltic oak, and tree ring analysis (dendrochronology) done on several of them including the present picture yields a typical likely use date from around 1601 onwards.3 Moreover, as Martin Bijl and others have observed, the size and the way they are cut is typical of panel production in Middelburg.4 The group comprises:
A. A still life of flowers in a tall glass vase (43.2 by 33 cm.), sold at Christie’s in New York, 4 October 2007, lot 10;
B. An adaptation of the above with fewer large flowers and more smaller ones, and crudely painted objects on the ledge, perhaps later additions (53 x 39 cm.); Basel, Kunstmuseum;
C. The present work (43.5 by 32.3 cm.);
D. A still life of lilies and numerous other flowers in an earthenware jug (43.3 by 31 cm.), in a private collection.5
E. A still life of wildflowers in a Venetian glass vase (58.6 by 35.7 cm.), in a private collecton in the U.S.A.6
Apart from the common compositional elements of the two variants A and B, there are further shared motifs. The yellow iris which appears in the upper left of the present work, C, occurs in identical form in the upper right of A & B. The white narcissus set on a diagonal in the lower right of the present work, C, occurs in a corresponding position in no. A, and it recurs, set in the jug in D. In all of these works the flowers fill the upper two-thirds of the picture plane, extending into the corners and forming an approximate square. They are all lit from the left. E. is less well-known than the other works, but is closest in style to D.
All four paintings in the group were probably painted in Middelburg in between circa 1601 and 1605. They are particularly close to two early and little-studied works by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, which almost certainly both predate 1606. One of these is a signed but undated early work by him in the Stichting P & N de Boer in Amsterdam (see Fig. 1).7 In it is to be seen a Damask Rose similar to those in the present work and others. Moreover the handling of the trefoil columbine leaves rimmed with yellow highlights and the orange flowers is identical to those in the present work, as is the Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris Rapae). It has a glossy enamel-like handling which is quite unlike his own work from 1606 and later, but which is recognisable in each of the group 1 to 4, and especially in the present work. These are characteristics which hark back to Ludger tom Ring. The composition of the De Boer Stichting flower piece is closer in type to Bosschaert’s earliest dated pictures than to any predecessor, but its style points backwards to the present group.
The other painting by Bosschaert is less studied than the Stichting De Boer work, and although signed with an authentic monogram, has only recently been generally accepted as from his hand (see Fig. 2). That painting, in the Fairhaven collection at Anglesea Abbey in Cambridgeshire (National Trust) is of remarkably high quality and sophistication, but although very similar to it in style and in the enamel-like handling, is compositionally further removed than the Stichting De Boer work from the dated and datable output of Bosschaert from 1606 onwards.8 It has been linked with the present group of four, but it is on a smaller panel.9 Like the others in the group, the blooms fill the corners of the composition (although forming a rectangle rather than a rough square), and they are set against a black background, while resting in a vessel on a pale stone ledge. The tapering glass beaker decorated with prunts harks forward to Bosschaert’s more familiar later work: indeed it is identical to the one in the De Boer Stichting work; as does the density of the arrangement of blooms, but in other respects it is more closely related to the present group. The carnation, and the shadow that it casts from the light entering from the left, are virtually identical to the one in the present work: in both pictures it seems to hover above the ledge, though on different sides of the foreground. An identical group of Yellow Freesias appears to the lower right of the arrangement of blooms in both pictures. The centre of each composition is anchored by a large white rose, the lower edge of which is partly obscured by leaves, but in both pictures an identical sprig of a pink flower to the right and a bud of the same to the left occur. The Damask rose that appears in the upper right of both compositions is the same, albeit minus the Cabbage White butterfly in the Fairhaven picture that recurs lower down in the present work. The sprig of Carnation just breaking out of its bud in the lower left of the blooms in the present picture occurs further up on the left of the Fairhaven work. The clump of white flowers to the left of each painting is not absolutely identical in each, but is very similar, though rotated about 45 degrees on its axis in the present work. In both it serves the same compositional purpose. Like the Stichting De Boer picture, its stone ledge setting is a marked characteristic of Bosschaert's early work.
Re-using particular blooms or sprigs or clumps of flowers in different compositions, sometimes in the same relative position, sometimes not, is a familiar characteristic of Bosschaert’s later career, but as is now abundantly clear, he was working in this way early in his career – or at least earlier than his first dated works.
The links between the present work and the signed Stichting de Boer and Fairhaven paintings make it clear that it is an autograph work by Bosschaert, and the close connections between it and the other paintings in the group show that they too are from his hand. This view has been expressed in the cited literature by Fred G. Meijer and is confirmed by him in a report dated 16th February 2005 and available on request. Sam Segal initially considered that the group of four should be located in The Netherlands before Bosschaert’s earliest works. He mentioned the little-known flower painter Lodewijck Jansz. van de Bosch as a possible author, but also advanced the idea that they may have formed part of the early oeuvre of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. He subsequently confirmed the attribution to Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder in a letter dated 25th December 2004.10
The blooms in the present picture emerge from what looks like a Wan-Li (ie then contemporary) Chinese vase with gilt mounts added in The Netherlands. In fact, the peacock-like bird facing the viewer is not a motif found in imported Wan-Li ware, and the form of the vase is not typical either. Bosschaert, followed by his pupil Balthasar van der Ast, included this vase with precise form and decoration of his own devising in a number of works, including some of his earliest flower pieces. Similar vases occur in the works of other early 17th Century flower painters, such as Jan Brueghel the Elder.
In the absence of dated works, a chronology of the present painting and the other works under discussion is hard to assess. On the basis of dendrochronology, all are likely to date from after 1600. Nos A & B are probably the earliest. The present work, no. C, may be the next in date, followed by D. (to judge from a black and white photograph), then the Fairhaven signed picture and no. D, followed by the Stichting De Boer painting.
Reconstructing the oeuvre of a painter before his earliest dated or securely documented work should only to be undertaken with caution, and must be based on secure solid evidence, as the unmasking of Van Meegeren's forging of an early career for Vermeer reminds us. On the basis of technical evidence, this painting and the other paintings in the group to which the present work belongs must have been painted in The Netherlands shortly after 1600, probably in Middelburg. They recall the works of Ludger Tom Ring, and they were surely also influenced by artists working on vellum, and also, especially in their compositions, by engraved flower pieces by Adriaen Collaert and others. The close relationship between the works is undoubted. The relationship between them, and between the present work in particular, and the earliest signed works by Bosschaert, including the use of common motifs such as individual blooms and groups of flowers and leaves as part of a working method familiar to us from Bosschaert's subsequent career, is so close that it is most unlikely that anyone other than Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder could have painted them.
1. Fred G. Meijer noted this.
2. See A. Lorenz (ed.), die Maler tom Ring, exhibition catalogue, Münster 1996, vol. II, pp. 390-399, 639, nos. 76-80, 194, all reproduced; see also S. Kemperdick, in B. Brinkmann (ed.), The Magic of Things, exhibition catalogue, Basel 2008, pp. 34-6, no. 3, reproduced, also fig. 8.
3. Peter Klein’s brief report dated 8th June 2004 indicates a plausible date of use for the Baltic oak panel from 1601 onwards, while Ian Tyers’ more comprehensive report suggests that the tree from which the panel was made was felled sometime after 1590, from which an earliest plausible use date from 1600 onwards can be extrapolated. Copies of both reports are available on request.
4. See S. Kemperdick. op. cit., p. 96, under no. 22, also Fred G. Meijer’s report dated 16th February 2005.
5. The works are as follows:
A. See Fred G. Meijer’s report dated 10 August 2007, reprinted as the catalogue entry to lot 106, Christie’s catalogue of Old Master Paintings, New York, 4 October 2007, pp. 156-9, reproduced. See also A. Lorenz (op. cit,), vol. II, pp. 641-2, no. 196, reproduced.
B. Inv. no. 1499; see S. Kemperdick, op. cit., no. 23, reproduced, as Netherlandish Master around 1600 Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (?). Fred Meijer (op. cit.) thinks that this picture is "not up to Bosschaert's standard"
D. Idem, pp. 96-7, no. 22, reproduced, as Netherlandish Master around 1600.
6. See A. Lorenz (ed.), op. cit., vol. II, p. 640, no. 195, reproduced.
7. See N. Bakker et al, Masters of Middelburg, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 1984, p. 122, no. 3, reproduced.
8. National Trust Inventory Number 515452; see Segal under literature, vol. I, p. 130, reproduced fig. 28, as Umkreis [Circle of] Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder; see also F.G. Meijer in the Christie’s catalogue entry, where the attribution to Bosschaert is confirmed following first-hand inspection. The painting is registered as by Bosschaert on the National Trust website. A possibly autograph variant of it is recorded in an old photograph kept at the R.K.D, The Hague (oil on panel, 35 by 25 cm.; see De Helsche en fluweelen Brueghel, exhibition catalogue, De Boer, Amsterdam, 1935, cat. no. 255, as by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder).
9. Fred G. Meijer has suggested that it may have been cut down from a Middelburg panel of a sort common to the present group, but its composition, with blooms filling the upper two-thirds of the composition but kept within the current picture plane, suggests otherwise.
10. A copy of this is available on request. Stephan Kemperdick, in two catalogue entries in the still life exhibition in Basel and elsewhere based his entries on Segal’s opinion of 1996, but noted that the panels are of Middelburg origin; op. cit., pp. 96 &98, under nos. 22 & 23.
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