Old Master Paintings

Still Lifes Through the Ages

By Sotheby's
Still life painting has long been a preoccupation of artists, a chance to show off their masterful rendering skills by capturing in breathtaking detail the delicate petals of a flower or the gleaming reflection off of a glass goblet. The genre has proven limitless through the ages. Below, a selection of works from the upcoming Master Paintings Evening Sale highlight the fascinating breadth in interpretation and execution.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, A Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Flask on a Marble Ledge, Flanked by a Red Admiral Butterfly and a Lizard. Estimate $2,500,000–3,500,000.

Bosschaert must have started to paint in the last decade of the 16thcentury, since he is mentioned as a Beleeder (board member) of the Guild of St Luke in Middelburg as early as 1593. What he was painting then and in the subsequent decade remains a mystery, because his first dated work is from 1605, two years earlier than this exquisite flower still life. Although it was painted at the very dawn of still life painting in the Netherland preceded only by flower pieces by Jan Brueghel the Elder in Antwerp and Roelandt Savery in Utrecht, this work reveals a sophistication that suggests the artist had some years of practice in the art of flower painting behind him.

Fede Galizia, A Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces, and a Grasshopper.
Estimate $2,000,000–3,000,000.

Fede Galizia helped to define the still-life genre in Italy in the early 17th century with naturalistic, pared-down compositions featuring fruit and flowers such as A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper. Discovered in the late 20th century, this painting is a prime example of the pioneering female artist’s attention to detail and innovation in compositional arrangement. Around 20 still lifes by Galizia are known today, making her fruit and flower pieces rare and significant as they represent her most important contribution to art history.

Balthasar van der Ast, A Still Life with Apricots, Cherries, a Wild Strawberry, Red Currants, Shells and Insects. Estimate $400,000–600,000.

This beautifully observed still life, signed at lower left, highlights Balthasar Van der Ast’s virtuosity on a small scale. Upon this tiny surface, he shows off his superb skill in drafting a composition with simple yet steadfast lines and a lovely mix of rich colors. Here, he has meticulously arranged a scene of fruit, shells, and insects in such a way so as to create a balanced and naturalistic impression, and by using a low vantage point and dark shadows, he imbues the scene with a sense of volume and immediacy. It is with ambitious and realistic paintings such as the present example that Van der Ast established his own artistic reputation, one initially rooted in the traditions of Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (his brother in law), as an artist at the forefront of Netherlandish still-life painting in the first half of the seventeenth century.

Pieter Claesz., Still Life of Lemons and Olives, Pewter Plates, a Roemer and a Façon-de-Venise Wine Glass on a Ledge. Estimate $700,000–900,000.

Pieter Claesz. started painting still lifes at the start of the 1620s. His early works are in the tradition of his Haarlem peers Floris van Dijck, Nicolaes Gillisz. and Floris van Schooten, with a colorful palette and a relatively high viewpoint, and comprising many objects and foodstuffs such as various kinds of fruit. By the middle of the decade, when his viewpoint became lower, he painted still lifes of great beauty and of a remarkably high quality and had clearly outstripped his townsmen.

Michaelina Wautier, A Garland of Flowers, Suspended Between Two Animal Skulls, a Dragonfly Above. Estimate $150,000–200,000.

Michaelina Wautier was not only a skilled portraitist, and history painter, but she also excelled in still life. Signed and dated 1652, this is one of only two still lifes known by her hand, but the detailed and diverse arrangement of blooms suggests that she must have painted other floral still lifes which can no longer be traced. Drawing inspiration from her Flemish contemporaries Jan Brueghel the Elder and Daniel Seghers as well as from ancient Roman iconography, Wautier probably painted this rare composition at the request of a specific patron.

Jan Frans van Dael, Still Life of Flowers in a Vase with a Pineapple, Peaches, and Grapes on a Stone Ledge. Estimate $300,000–500,000.

Jan Frans van Dael was one of the most highly regarded painters of flowers and fruit in Paris during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He turned to still-life painting after training as an architect in his native Antwerp and moving to Paris in 1786 as a decorative painter, in which capacity he gained important commissions at the chateaux of Saint-Cloud, Bellevue and Chantilly, among others. The present canvas, a magnificent example, is one of Van Dael’s earliest. Dated 1792, it is among the finest early works of the artists oeuvre to come to market. The rather dark background is characteristic of his early compositions, illuminated by a bright but soft light, which allows for the meticulous articulation of every intricate detail and assorted texture, as well as the convincing impression of depth and substance.

Luis Meléndez, Still Life with a Plate of Azaroles, Fruit, Mushrooms, Cheese and Receptacles. Estimate $1,500,000–2,000,000.

This outstanding work by one of the greatest still-life painters of the eighteenth century, Luis Meléndez, is a variant of a picture today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, that formed part of the celebrated series of some 44 still lifes commissioned by the Prince of Asturias, the future Charles IV, for his Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace, Madrid. In the detailed rendering of the still-life elements, the solidity of the objects and simplicity of the composition, the painting continues the rich still-life tradition of the Spanish Golden Age developed by the likes of Juan Sánchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán, yet at the same time is imbued with a sense of modernity through the highly realistic treatment of the objects themselves that reflects the prevailing spirit of the Age of Enlightenment.

Who Were the Female Old Masters?

Discover More About Old Master Paintings

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's