Hidden away in a French private collection for over two hundred years, this painting is an important addition to the known oeuvre of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, a pioneer in the specialist genre of flower painting which developed from the early seventeenth century. Born in Antwerp, Bosschaert spent much of his career in Middelburg, where his artist father had moved the family around 1587 to escape the persecution of Protestants. Middelburg, a prosperous trading centre and the capital of Zeeland, was renowned for its botanical gardens. There was a ferment of interest in exotic plants, such as irises and tulips, imported from the Balkans, the Near and Far East, and the New World, which formed the basis for the Dutch horticultural industry. From 1593 to 1613, Ambrosius was a member, and at times dean, of the Middelburg Guild of St Luke, where he was recorded both as a painter and art dealer. Around 1604, he married the elder sister of Balthasar van der Ast, who would become his foster-son and most successful pupil. By 1614 Bosschaert had left Middelburg. Subsequently, he was briefly recorded in Amsterdam, then in Bergen-op-Zoom, in 1615, in Utrecht, from 1615 to 1619, and in Breda, from 1619 to 1621. He died in The Hague, when delivering a painting he had executed for a member of Prince Maurits’ household. In Utrecht his two sons Ambrosius the Younger and Abraham, and his brother in law, Balthasar van der Ast, continued to be active. His eldest surviving son, Johannes, worked in Haarlem and Dordrecht where he exerted considerable influence, even though he died very young. Through the still lifes of his (step)sons as well as due to his own work, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s influence on flower and fruit painting can be felt distinctly until at least halfway the seventeenth century.
Bosschaert’s extremely high standard for the execution of his paintings ensured that each of them was, and particularly in a meticulous state of preservation as this example still is, a highly desirable jewel of art.
Bosschaert’s first dated painting is of 1605, although he appears to have begun to specialize in painting flowers several years before. He frequently, as here, painted on copper, a more costly, stable, and smooth support than panel, which allowed him to achieve an exquisite gloss and delicacy of finish. This painting dates from 1621, when Bosschaert was living in Breda. It reflects the confidence of his mature work, when he was able to orchestrate a substantial number of flower species – well over a dozen – on a relatively small support into a vibrant composition with spatial depth, movement and tonal harmony, without sacrificing the individual details and charms of each flower.
Characteristically, Bosschaert grouped together flowers which bloom at different times of the year, from the tulip and fritillary of spring to the roses of June. All, to the seventeenth century mind, celebrate God’s Creation. The composition is dominated by the yellow iris and red tulip, which provide a magnificent burst of energy at the top of the picture. Strongly-lit, rounded flowers – the roses, marsh marigold and poppy anemones – echo the shape of the vase. In between, more delicate, feathery plants such as the sprig of rosemary and forget-me-nots, mostly in cool tones of blue and green, bind the composition together and rest the eye. Like most seventeenth-century painters of floral still lifes, Bosschaert composed his bouquets with the aid of individual studies of flowers and objects. As a result he could freely repeat and rearrange motifs in various paintings. In this example, too, twins of flowers and other motifs from earlier works can be found, but Bosschaert appears to have put extra effort into this painting in order to present various blooms that were unseen in his earlier work. The elaborate mould-blown glass vase, embossed with gilded lion heads biting small gold rings, can be found in only one other of Bosschaert’s still lifes, a floral bouquet from 1617, now in the Hallwyl Museum in Stockholm, inv. no. K.A. 19. That painting includes the same dark red poppy anemone in the same spot, with a similar Atalanta butterfly alighted on it, and a pansy below. The anemone can also be found in Bosschaert’s bouquet from 1619 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK A 1522, where it is paired with the pink rose from the present composition in reverse. Also in reverse, the red-and-white tulip can be found in several of Bosschaerts floral still life’s from 1618 to 1621, among them the impressive work from the first year in the Statens Museum in Copenhagen, inv. no. KMSsp212, as well as in a painting from 1619, previously with P. de Boer, Amsterdam.1 That painting, too, includes the combination of the poppy anemone, butterfly and pansy. The shell at lower right is highly similar to the one in the same position in what is arguably Bosschaert’s most famous flower painting, the one with a view of a landscape behind the bouquet in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 679, which also seems to include the same dark blue hyacinth, the grape hyacinth and the fritillary found in the present bouquet.
This painting, previously known only through early copies2, has close connections with a Bosschaert masterpiece also signed and dated 1621, Bouquet of flowers in a glass vase, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, inv. No.1996.35.1 (fig. 1). It shares with the Washington painting the group of flowers placed above the rim of the vase, among them the central white rose and marsh marigold, the left-hand columbine and pink rose, and curving sprig of lily-of-the-valley. Some of the flowers in the group have been moved, such as the cyclamen, or differ in detail, such as the white rose bud, which has opened up further here. In the Washington painting the positions of the tulip and iris which crown the composition have been reversed and they have been mirrored, while the Red Admiral butterfly is perched on the tabletop, replacing the shell. Although Bosschaert reuses the same flower motifs, taken from studies kept in his studio, he always varies the details. Bosschaert's clients will not have worried or cared that the artist repeated motifs or even parts of his compositions. After his still lifes had left the studio and got dispersed, they would only very rarely be confronted with each other. Moreover, Bosschaert’s extremely high standard for the execution of his paintings ensured that each of them was, and particularly in a meticulous state of preservation as this example still is, a highly desirable jewel of art.
By the time of his death in The Hague in 1621, while on a mission to deliver a painting to a member of Prince Maurits’s household, Bosschaert was one of the most renowned flower painters of his day. The Washington bouquet has a trompe l’oeil tablet at the base of the picture, probably a near-contemporary addition, with an inscription that can equally apply to the present work: ‘C’est l’Angelicq main du gra[n]d Peindre de Flore AMBROSE, renommé jusqu’au Riuage Mort’ (This is the angelic hand of the great painter of flowers, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of death).
Fred G. Meijer
1. L.J. Bol, The Bosschaert Dynasty,1960, no. 43.
2. See JL Bol, ibid, no. 49, as School of Bosschaert; another in the Rijksmuseum Twenthe Enschede, oil on panel 13 ½ x 8 ½ in / 34 x 22 cm, from the van Heel Collection. A third copy is oil on copper 13 ¼ x 9 ¼ in / 33.7 x 23.5 cm, Sotheby’s London, 6th December 1972, lot 8; Paris, Galerie d’Art Saint Honoré, 17th Century Netherlandish Paintings, 1985; Amsterdam, Salomon Lilian, 1995, p.8 (erroneously said to be on a silver support). Several of these have, probably erroneously, been attributed to Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger, as early works.