Lot 7
  • 7

Balthasar van der Ast

300,000 - 400,000 GBP
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  • Balthasar van der Ast
  • A still life of fruit and shells with a rose and various insects upon a stone ledge
  • signed lower right: .B.vander.Ast
  • oil on oak panel


Emil Lachman, Berlin;
His (deceased) sale, Berlin, Lepke, 30 September - 1 October 1913, lot 247;
Anonymous sale, London, Christie’s, 27 June 1958, lot 71, for £1,800 to Hallsborough;
With the Hallsborough Gallery, London;
Purchased from the above by the father of the present owner.


Ghent, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België, Fleurs et Jardins dans l’art Flamand, 1960, no. 9.


L.J. Bol, The Bosschaert dynasty, Leigh-on-Sea 1960, pp. 81-2, cat. no. 92.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden, who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting has a fine oak panel bevelled on all sides, which has always remained perfectly flat. It is primed behind with dark red priming. The beautiful condition is almost as remarkable as the delicate detail and finesse of the original technique. Every minute definition in the shells, the insects, the exact reflection or imperfection in the glow on the skin of a peach for instance is described in immaculately fine glazes. The restoration is quite recent. The varnish is rather dense, but there is some careful retouching visible up the right edge and in the background above the twig with the butterfly nearby. A small scratch near the caterpillar on the right of the ledge has been touched out and some other little retouching strokes can be seen along the surface of the ledge, where there may have been minute lost flakes such as can be see in the blackberry and raspberry to the left. Other small retouchings are by the left edge, with a strengthening stroke or two around the central peaches and for instance around the little hole on the dangling leaf. These are minutiae however in a beautifully preserved still life. The signature is perfectly untouched and intact. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

Although Balthasar van der Ast was renowned as a painter of shells and frequently devoted paintings to their representation, here they occupy an integral rather than dominant role in the composition. Here he has depicted, from left to right, a sea-urchin, a  turbo marmoratus, and a Conidea (Conus textile) resting against a marbled conus (conus marmoreus). They are placed alongside a variety of fruits, including a raspberry and a blackberry, redcurrants, peaches plums and apricots, with peach branches behind them. Van der Ast has taken the greatest care to depict the surface and texture of all the fruits, delighting particularly in the rendition of the worm holes and other blemishes of the less ripe fruit. To balance the composition, a single red rose lies at the end of the table. Around the fruit and shells move a variety of insects, including a red admiral butterfuly, a dragonfly, a caterpillar and a beetle.

Although commonplace today, such shells were great rarities in the 17th century and were extremely expensive. Like tulips they became the subject of speculation, and the victims of this indulgence mocked as 'shelpenzotten' or 'shell fools'. Consequently shells, like flowers, came to be seen as emblems of vanitas.  Segal has argued that the shells in Van der Ast's paintings were indeed intended as vanitas symbols.1  This understanding would have been reinforced to the viewer by the juxtaposition of such elements of transience and worldliness, such as the rose and the decaying fruit, with symbols of heaven and eternity such as the butterfly. While it is not clear that such a meaning was intended by this picture, its intimate character certainly meets the contemplative requirements of the vanitas subject.

Too few of Van der Ast's paintings are dated to enable us to construct a chronology for small-scale works such as this. Securely dated examples range only from 1617 to 1628. To a certain extent the composition may look back to his smaller panel today in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden2, generally dated to the 1620s, in which shells are similarly juxtaposed with fruit and insects against a backdrop of peach branches, but the calmer and more spacious design would argue that this is a later work, perhaps painted in Delft, where Van der Ast had settled in 1632.

1. S. Segal, A Prosperous Past,  the Sumptuous Still-Life in the Netherlands 1600-1700, The Hague 1988, pp. 88-89.
2. Inv. 1722/28, panel, 29 by 37.5 cm. Reproduced in Segal, op. cit., p. 231, cat. no. 14.