OLD MASTERS FROM THE VAN DEDEM COLLECTION
Probably by descent until anonymously sold, ('The Property of a Private Collection'), London, Christie's, 22 April 1988, lot 90, where acquired by Baron van Dedem.
S. Segal, in Masters of Middelburg, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 1984, pp. 50, 61, note 15;
P. van der Ploeg et al., in Uit de Schatkamer van de Verzamelaar, Hollandse Zeventiende-Eeuwse Schilderijen uit Nederlands Particulier Bezit, exh. cat., The Hague 1995, pp. 10–11;
P.C. Sutton, Dutch & Flemish Paintings, The Collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, London 2002, pp. 20–23, no. 1, reproduced.
This still life was painted in Utrecht, whence Vander Ast had moved in 1619 with the family of his brother in law and teacher Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573–1621), and where he would remain until he departed for Delft in 1632. Unsurprisingly Van der Ast’s earlier pieces such as this initially reflected the influence of his master before they begin to display an increasingly independent artistic personality around the middle of the decade. Like Bosschaert, Van der Ast painted predominantly fruit and flower pieces, composed like this along a strong vertical axis held by a large flower, very often, as in this case, a magnificent iris. The bouquet is set against a dark neutral background, with many leaves set in half-shadows, the better to emphasise the rich colours of its individual blooms themselves. What was new to Van der Ast’s work was the importance he attached to the realistic insects and animals which he used to animate his designs (such as the lizard in this panel), which suggest that he had looked carefully at the work of another Utrecht resident, Roelandt Savery (1576–1639), who had settled in the city in exactly the same year. Van der Ast was also famous for the introduction of exotic shells into many of his works, a reflection of the emergent fashion in the Netherlands for their collection and speculation. These accomplishments were greatly regarded by his contemporaries. In his Schildersregister (Register of Painters) written in the 1670s, the Amsterdam doctor and art lover Jan Sysmus wrote succinctly: ‘B. Van der Ast, In flowers, shells and lizards, beautiful’.
Although there are no shells in this picture, they do recur in another small panel painted in the same year, of very similar dimensions and employing the same noppenglas beaker, today in the Saint Louis Museum of Art, Saint Louis, Missouri (fig. 1). Other pictures also painted in 1622, of much less exuberant design but which contain the same or similar elements include a Flower still life with shells, caterpillar and lizard in a private collection, in which a similar beaker and the same lizard recur,2 and a Flower still life with shells and caterpillar sold in these Rooms, 9 December 1987, lot 67, and a small copper sold in these Rooms, 11 December 2003, lot 55. Other paintings from the same year, notably the remarkable and more minimal Carnations in a porcelain vase in the P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam, show the remarkable range and invention that Van der Ast had already developed in his work by this date.3 Indeed, although still then an emerging artist, by 1622 he was already sufficiently well known to be mentioned in letters written by Aernout van Buchel (1565–1641) to the Utrecht humanist and art lover Johan de Wit in Rome.4
At the time of the 1995 exhibition of this work in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, scholars suggested a detailed interpretation of the possible symbolic elements contained in its design. Details such as the fly on the wilted pink rose and the fallen flowers on the ledge, for example, can evoke associations with contemporary Dutch notions of the transience of life. The caterpillar on the tulip, for example, refers to the Resurrection because ‘…the butterfly that emerges was seen as a metaphor for the human soul…’.5 While it is impossible for us to know whether Van der Ast intended such an interpretation for the present work, it is worth observing that in a small panel of Flowers in a glass beaker in a niche with a butterfly painted the following year in 1623 (fig. 2), he very unusually inscribed the ledge of the niche with a poem that suggests such explicit vanitas associations were very much on his mind:
Wat ziet ghy op dees Blom. On us soo schooner schynt
Die.door.der.zonnen.cracht.zeer lichteliyck verdwynt
Let op Godts Woort alleen dwelck in eeuwich Bloeyen siet
‘What you see on this flower that seems so beautiful before you
That through the power of the sun very lightly fades away.
Be aware that only God’s word flourishes eternally.’6
By the time he left Utrecht for Delft in 1632, Van der Ast seems to have painted fewer pure flower pieces such as this. The backgrounds of his painting began to lighten after the mid- to late 1620s, and his brushwork becomes looser. However, as Van der Ast’s dated works range only from 1617 to 1628, a reliable chronology of his later career unfortunately remains elusive.
1 These can range from coppers of c. 5 cm. in height to canvases of two metres in width.
2 Segal in Amsterdam 1984, p. 51, cat. no. 12, reproduced.
3 Segal in Amsterdam 1984, no. 11, reproduced in colour.
4 Cited in Sutton 2002, p. 23.
5 Van der Ploeg in The Hague 1995, p. 10.
6 Sold London, Sotheby’s, 10 July 2002, lot 29. The verse draws its inspiration from the Old Testament, notably Isaiah 40, 6–8.
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