W hen Juan Manuel (Manolo) Grasset started collecting old master paintings, he initially perused the Spanish art market, but soon discovered the treasures the international market, particularly that in London, had to offer. His interest gradually focused on Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century works, particularly still lifes and landscapes. Over many years of collecting, Manolo gathered a fine and impressive selection of paintings in that field. Moreover, he also acquired substantial knowledge about the subject, studying the literature and visiting museums, and he loved discussing paintings, and those in his collection in particular, with museum curators and art historians.
A keen and eager connoisseur, Manolo also made observations outside of his own collection. One of his proudest achievements was working out that a painting by Osias Beert in the Prado (inv.no. 1606) is in fact half a painting; the other half, Manolo discovered, is in the collection at the Palacio Real in Madrid (inv. no. 701) – the two halves had already been separated (probably long) before 1746, in which year the Prado painting was recorded as an autonomous artwork in the inventory of King Philip V of Spain.
As a well-informed connoisseur, Manolo was able to find an excellent balance between the aesthetic qualities and the intrinsic value of his purchases. He collected a distinct group of truly iconic still lifes, and several more intimate ones, also of high quality. Probably the most unique among his still lifes is the impressive banquet piece by Floris van Dijck (1574/75-1651). Only very few such major works by this artist have come down to us – he probably did not paint many either – and they appear on the market only very rarely. Nevertheless, they were seminal for the development of the still lifes of food on a table for which Haarlem would become famous. Floris van Dijck was the son of wealthy parents. As a newly trained artist he travelled to Italy in about 1600, returning to Haarlem around 1603, marrying there three years later. From 1610 on, he was a warden of the Haarlem painters’ guild several times, and in 1637 he was appointed dean, but he was also involved in the Haarlem brewery industry. A man of business himself, Manolo no doubt appreciated the entrepreneurship of such artists in addition to the quality of their paintings.
The earliest known example of this type of still life by van Dijck is dated 1610 – the Grasset painting will have originated a few years later, probably around 1614. Manolo was less keen on works by the subsequent Haarlem generation of still-life painters, who produced many ‘monochrome’ banquets. If there is one aspect that characterises the Grasset collection, it is that the paintings are full of colour. This is certainly true for the flower paintings Manolo collected. He was keen on the work of the early painter of floral still lifes, Osias Beert (c.1580-1623) – who was also a cork merchant, the most complex and impressive flower painting by whom Manolo managed to acquire. Extraordinarily, it combines four flower arrangements in different containers. No other composition as elaborate as this is known by the artist, or by any of his contemporaries. It may well have been the result of a special commission for an important patron. To the left, there is a German stoneware jug, to the right a globular glass vase, and in the centre are two different types of baskets. The jug to the left contains mainly tulips, many more than the neck of such a jug can contain in reality. This and the fact that several of the flowers in this painting bloom in different times of the year proves that Beert did not paint an existing arrangement, but a fantasy he conjured up on the panel. Just as exquisite, but much more intimate is Beert’s still life of a wide variety of roses, displayed in a basket decorated with a lacquer border.
From a later generation, painted in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, are a bouquet of tulips and other flowers by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1629-1679), a pupil of Jan Breughel the Younger, and a finely detailed bouquet in a glass vase by the highly talented Nicolaes van Verendael (1640-1691). At one time in its past, its signature was overpainted with that of Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684), undoubtedly in order to advance its monetary value. That this deceit went unnoticed for perhaps more than a century vouches for the quality of the painting. By the great master of still-life painting, Jan Davidsz. de Heem himself, Manolo Grasset cherished an intimate bouquet of flowers in a vase, placed in a stone niche with some fruit on the ledge. De Heem spent a substantial part of his career in Antwerp, where the artists just mentioned were also active, but this flower painting was done during an intermittent sojourn of about 15 years in his native city of Utrecht, in about 1670, some two years before he returned south. By moving north, de Heem had brought elements of Flemish still-life painting to the North Netherlands. Due to the fact that he was one of the most accomplished and influential still-life artists of his time this had a substantial impact on the work of many Dutch contemporaries.
This auction of works from the Grasset collection also includes a still life of flowers and fruit with a parrot by Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94-1657), who almost certainly was de Heem's teacher in Utrecht in the early 1620s. Paintings precisely of this type, from about 1623, made a mark on several of de Heem’s earliest known still lifes. Van der Ast was a very prolific painter of still lifes of flowers and fruit who became one of the leading artists in his field in Utrecht in the early 1620s and who in 1632 moved to Delft, where his style gradually changed.
Manolo Grasset also had a penchant for still lifes of fruit and one of his favourite artists in this area was the Antwerp still-life painter Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582-1647), two of whose still lifes, quite different from each other in character, are included in this auction. The seemingly modest still life of a bunch of grapes and citrus fruit is an unusual work by the artist. Only rarely he painted fruit loosely arranged on a table and this is certainly the most charming extant example. The other painting, a still life of a variety of plums on a shiny pewter plate, is more common for van Hulsdonck’s œuvre. The artist has emphasized the softness of the skin of the plums by contrasting the fruit with the shine of the hard metal of the plate. The painting includes a wealth of fine details in the stems and leaves, the scattered dewdrops and the wormholes in the wooden table.
The Grasset collection is by no means restricted to Dutch and Flemish paintings. Manolo gathered a fine group of still lifes by Peter Binoit (c.1590-1632) who was active in the circle of the still-life painters Isaac and Peter Soreau, in Hanau and Frankfurt am Main. Like other artists from this German group, he was inspired to some degree by Antwerp contemporaries such as Brueghel, Beert, and van Hulsdonck, but always maintained a highly individual style and idiom. Binoit tended to compose his still lifes out of rather large, bold shapes and often included one or more small live birds in his compositions. In one of his still lifes on offer from the Grasset collection, he has even placed a live quail amidst the fruit and flowers on the table.
Live birds are also present in an impressive still life by Juan van der Hamen y Leon (1596-1631), who worked in Madrid, but who was of Flemish descent and who also, to some degree, was inspired by Flemish still-life painters, Frans Snijders among them. Nevertheless, he is rightly considered as one of the founding fathers of Spanish still-life painting and this impressive, symmetrically composed fruit piece from 1622 is nothing short of a masterpiece worthy of a great collection like the one assembled by Juan Manuel Grasset.
While it is always sad to see a collection like this, assembled with passion and knowledge, scattered again, at the same time this provides rare opportunities for other, perhaps emerging, enthusiasts to add a treasured masterpiece to their own collection and to cherish it for many years to come.