The nature of Bosschaert’s early work has long been the subject of speculation. His earliest dated work is from 1605, and from then on a sequence of dated and undated works allows us to chart the progress of his career with some precision.1 By 1605 however he was already well over thirty years old, and he was recorded as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke from 1593 onwards, serving as its Dean on occasion. He must therefore have been active as a painter for at least twelve years before his earliest dated work, and although it is sometimes assumed that he did not turn his hand to flower painting until 1605 or shortly before, it seems more likely that he had an early career in the genre that predates 1605. Given the sophistication of his flower paintings from 1606 and onwards, it is most unlikely that they could be the works of an artist just embarking on a career in the genre of flower painting.
Perhaps one of the reasons why some have assumed this to be the case is the absence of much in the way of independent flower-still life painting in European art before this date. The earliest surviving dated flower-pieces in oils in Netherlandish art were painted by Roelandt Savery in 1603, possibly in Amsterdam, but more likely after his arrival in Prague. Jacques de Gheyn was probably painting flower pieces in oils before 1604, and possibly as early as 1600, but his earliest surviving dated flower piece is from 1612. The earliest documentary evidence for a flower-piece by Jan Brueghel the Elder is 1605, but given the sophistication of his still lifes of 1606–08, he may well have painted them before that. What is clear is that from 1606 onwards there was a sudden and considerable output in the genre by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Roelandt Savery and their increasing numbers of followers.
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 of a 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.2 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 seventeenth 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 1565.3 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.
When the present work first appeared on the art market in 1990 it was considered to be German from the late sixteenth century and soon afterwards, because of its similar palette and rendering of some of the flowers, it was attributed to Ludger tom Ring by Ingvar Berstrom. In 1996 Sam Segal doubted the attribution, recognising it as more refined and less rigid in its composition than tom Ring’s known works and finding no matching elements amongst the German master’s flower paintings. Segal instead linked the painting with a group of floral still lifes that at the time he situated between tom Ring and the early works of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. The group comprises 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. Until relatively recently, and indeed as they were in the 1996 tom Ring exhibition, these works have been generically catalogued, variously as Netherlandish or German and datable to the end of the sixteenth century or circa 1600.
The group comprises:
A. A still life of flowers in a tall glass vase (43.2 by 33 cm.), the present lot.
B. An adaptation of the above with a few larger flowers, and crudely painted objects on the ledge, perhaps later additions (53 x 39 cm.); Basel, Kunstmuseum.4
C. A still life of roses, marigolds and other flowers in a Wan-Li Kraak porcelain vase, sold London, Sotheby’s, 3 July 2013, lot 10 (43.5 by 32.3 cm.); see fig. 2.5
D. A still life of lilies and numerous other flowers in an earthenware jug (43.3 by 31 cm.), in a private collection.6
E. A still life of wildflowers in a Venetian glass vase (58.6 by 35.7 cm.), in a private collection in the U.S.A.7
As we will see these paintings are not just interlinked with each other, but firmly linked to the first signed and dated works by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, such that a convincing chronology of his works up to 1605 can now be established.
Apart from the common compositional elements of the two variants A and B (of which more, see below), there are further shared motifs amongst the group. The yellow iris which appears in the upper right of the present work, A, occurs in identical form in the upper right of B and C. The white narcissus set on a diagonal in the lower right of the present work, A, occurs in a corresponding position in C, and it recurs, set in the jug in D. As Meijer and others have pointed out, this narcissus and other individual blooms were likely lifted from a pattern book in the artist’s ownership and not painted from life. 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.
B, cruder in style and generally thought not to be by Bosschaert, uses the present work, A, as the basis of its composition but adds in recognisable flowers from later works by Bosschaert from circa 1608.8 It must therefore have been painted by a copyist some years after the rest of the group.
All four of the remaining 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 signed works by Bosschaert, which almost certainly both predate 1606:
F. Still life of an iris and damask roses in a glass beaker; Fairhaven Collection, Angelsea Abbey, Cambs. (fig. 3).9
G. A still life with an open poppy and other flowers in a glass beaker, signed but undated, in the Stichting P & N de Boer in Amsterdam (fig. 4).10
In the signed Stichting De Boer work, G, is to be seen a Damask Rose similar to those in C and others. Moreover the handling of the trefoil columbine leaves rimmed with yellow highlights and the orange flowers is identical to those in C, 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 A, C, D and E. 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, F, is less studied than the Stichting De Boer work. That painting, in the Fairhaven collection at Anglesea Abbey in Cambridgeshire (National Trust; see fig. 3), 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, and likely comes before it and immediately after the group A, C, D, E. It has been linked with the present group of four, but it is on a smaller panel.11 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 C: in both pictures it seems to hover above the ledge, though on different sides of the foreground. A group of yellow freesias, a large white rose, sprig of a pink flower, damask rose, sprig of carnation and other flowers are identical to those in C. Like in the present work and the others in the group, its creamy stone ledge setting and the shadow that it casts is a marked characteristic of Bosschaert's early period.
Aside from the motifs shared between the original group of four, there are some that are shared between the present work and those slightly later in date. The fly or bluebottle, which would become something of a signature for Bosschaert and that we see in the lower left of the present work, occurs again in precisely the same form in the Fairhaven still life, F. The black-tailed skimmer in the lower right of the present work occurs again in one of Bosschaert’s earliest dated works, the still life of 1606 in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 5).12
In summary, all the above paintings A–G are linked by several shared motifs: A, the present lot, shares motifs with C and D; C shares different motifs with E and F; and the present lot also shares motifs with the signed and dated work in Cleveland from 1606. Besides this, the various stages of evolution from one to the next, beginning with the present work and finishing with the Cleveland example, are logical and easy to determine when viewed consecutively. The composition, starting with the present scattered explosion of smaller flowers, develops over the period of perhaps 3–4 years into a compositional type that Bosschaert would, largely speaking, stick to for the remainder of his career. 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 that join the present work to the ex-Sotheby’s work, C, and that work to the signed Stichting De Boer and Fairhaven works, F and G, 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 by Fred G. Meijer. Sam Segal, whose initial work on the group at the time of the 1996 exhibition Die Maler tom Ring was instrumental in establishing what we now know, 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 œuvre of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder.
Each of the panels in question are of Baltic oak, and tree ring analysis (dendrochronology) done on several of them yields a typical likely use date from around 1601 onwards. Moreover, as Martin Bijl and others have observed, the size and the way they are cut is typical of panel production in Middelburg.13 However, recent dendrochronological analysis on the present panel has yielded surprising results with the last ring dating to 1543. Allowing for sapwood, which is present in the lower left, a date of first use between 1548 and 1564 is indicated. Remarkably, this does coincide with the dated flower pieces of Ludger tom Ring, but given that the painting itself is so intertwined with other early Bosschaerts in handling, style and motifs, we must simply assume that the artist used or re-used an existing panel, a view promoted and shared by Fred Meijer.14
In the absence of dated works, a chronology of the present painting and the other works under discussion can only be hypothesised. For the reasons stated above, it seems most likely that the present lot is the earliest, followed by C, D, E, F then G. However, reconstructing the œuvre of a painter before his earliest dated or securely documented work should only 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.
The group of paintings 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 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. Offered London, Christie’s, 3 December 1997, lot 12.
2. Fred Meijer noted this.
3. See A. Lorenz (ed.), Die Maler tom Ring, exhibition catalogue, Münster 1996, vol. II, pp. 390–99, 639, nos 76–80, 194, all reproduced; see also S. Kemperdick, in B. Brinkmann (ed.), The Magic of Things, exhibition catalogue, Basel 2008, pp. 34–36, no. 3, reproduced, also fig. 8.
4. Ibid., p. 98, no. 23, reproduced.
5. S. Segal in A. Lorenz (ed.), Die Maler tom Ring, exhibition catalogue, Munster 1996, vol. I, p. 130, vol. II, pp. 400–01, no. 81, reproduced.
6. Kemperdick, op. cit., p. 96, no. 22, reproduced.
7. A. Lorenz (ed.), op. cit., vol. II, p. 640, no. 195, reproduced.
8. Such as the pink rose and yellow flower immediately above the rim of the glass which are directly lifted from the still life on copper sold at Sotheby's, London, 25 June 1969, lot 19.
9. 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).
10. See N. Bakker et al., Masters of Middelburg, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 1984, p. 122, no. 3, reproduced.
11. 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.
12. See the catalogue to the exhibition Het Nederlandse stilleven 1550-1720, Amsterdam 1999, pp. 117–19, no. 5, reproduced.
13. See S. Kemperdick. op. cit., p. 96, under no. 22.
14. X-rays do not reveal the presence of any (earlier) painting underneath.
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