Lot 26
  • 26

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

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Ambrosius Bosschaert
  • A still life of flowers in a glass flask on a marble ledge, flanked by a red admiral butterfly and a lizard
  • signed in monogram and dated lower left: 16 AB 07 formerly inscribed on a label affixed to a backing board: Tableau de cuivre/ de Brughel de Velours/ A été donné à mon père par/ Mme Marcel, veuve de l’orientaliste/ de ce nom qui avait fait partie/ de l’éxpedition d’Egypte et qui plus/ tard, devenu aveugle, dicta, et qui plus/ tard, à sa femme, une dictionnaire arabe/ for apprecié
  • oil on copper
  • 9 3/8  by 7 1/4  in.; 23.8 by 18.4 cm.


The widow of Jean-Joseph Marcel (1776-1854), after 1854 (as by Jan Brueghel the Elder);
By whom given to the father of a subsequent anonymous owner (according to the inscription transcribed above);
Dr Otto Wertheimer, Paris;
By whom sold, Paris, Galliéra, 18 June 1965, lot 110;
Private collection, Switzerland;
With Robert Noortman, Maastricht;
From whom acquired the present collector in 2000. 


The following condition report has been provided by Karen Thomas of Thomas Art Conservation LLC., 336 West 37th Street, Suite 830, New York, NY 10018, 212-564-4024, info@thomasartconservation.com, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's. This painting is in excellent condition. Even the most sensitive paints used to add final details, such as the dark touches in the salamander, are beautifully intact. Limited retouching addresses a loss in the background in the upper right corner and a loss along the left edge near the middle — including the edge of the red knautia, while tiny spots of restoration are found in a few of the flowers. A common aging phenomenon has developed in the blue anemones, manifesting as a whitish haze that diffuses the details in these small flowers, and a slight degree of age-related fading has developed in red lake details. It may be possible to coax some detail out of the two anemones with judicious retouching, however, the stunning level of detail in the painting draws enough attention away from this aging defect that it isn't immediately noticeable. A wood strainer has been attached to the reverse of the copper panel support for stability and handling. In terms of treatment, reviving the varnish and a small amount of retouching to bring out some definition in the blue flowers could be considered, but the painting may be displayed in its current state.
"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

Bosschaert must have started to paint in the last decade of the 16th Century, 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 Netherlands, where the only dated works by other artists that precede it are flower pieces painted 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. The early phase of Bosschaert’s career, before circa 1610 shows a rapid period of development within a short period of time, which is revealed by dated works, and by undated ones that fit into a logical sequence.   In his first dated painting, of 1605, he fills the picture plane with blooms, which extend into the top corners of the rectangular copper plate, while the entire width of the ledge below is also used for sprigs of flowers that rest on it.1  There is very little impression of depth within the blooms, which appear to occupy a single flat plane, although Bosschaert experimented with a device used much more successfully here: of showing one flower with its crown facing the viewer, while another is shown facing away, with its stalk clearly visible.  A work from 1606 reveals a major step towards a more mature style, so that that the arrangement of blooms has a shape, and the urge to fill the picture plane has passed, although the sense of depth and clarity of arrangement is still somewhat limited.2 The flowers, given a greater sense of depth, sit in unadorned simple glass vessel, as here.  Another painting from 1606 reveals similar traits, with the display of the greatest number of flowers taking precedence over formal structure and depth.3

All these early works are, like the present one, painted on a copper support.4  Three other still lifes by Bosschaert dated 1607 are known, and several other undated works can be assigned to approximately the same date.5

In this highly refined and beautifully preserved painting, Bosschaert leaves space around the outer blooms, and gives much greater depth to the composition.  While the massing of plants with many smaller flowers and leaves lower down above the rim of the glass vessel is much more complex, he never sacrifices clarity and logic in their arrangement, and the overall impression is one of simplicity and elegance.  The stalks seen in the clear glass vessel all correspond naturally to the flowers above them, for example.  These are characteristics that show that Bosschaert has already attained the key accomplishments of his mature style.  Most of the characteristics of his flower pieces from the succeeding decade are to be found here, and his style only changes to a significant degree when his move to Utrecht in 1616 coincides with a marked increase in sophistication and complexity of arrangement, probably under the influence of Roelandt Savery, and arguably at the cost of the restraint and tranquility of mood that have made the works from his Middelburg period so admired.

Bosschaert’s still lifes are, like those of his contemporaries, generally static.  This painting is unusual in that the lizard emerging from behind the right side of the glass vessel is clearly sizing up the Red Admiral butterfly that has alighted on the edge of the ledge in the left foreground.  Such a dynamic interaction within a painting is seen in only a few other works by the artist: otherwise movement may be inferred – we know that the bumble bee on the wild rose above and to the right is only likely to remain there briefly – but this is understood by us and not implicit in the painting.

Bosschaert must have been aware of his own genius as a painter from early on in his career, since his signature never varied: an adaptation of Albrecht Dürer's famous monogram of a D within a larger A with the D supplanted by a B, as can clearly be seen in the monogram on the present picture.  In Bosschaert's day Dürer was the most renowned Old Master to have worked north of the Alps, and Bosschaert was probably aware that a Dürer revival was underway in Germany and at Rudolf II's Court in Prague.  To describe Bosschaert's appropriation of the most famous monogram in art as presumptuous would then have been an understatement, but history has shown it to be amply justified: the first artist brought the Renaissance to Northern Europe; the second invented the genre of flower painting as an artist's sole raison d'être.

It is clear from Karel van Mander's accounts of the careers of several artists that there was a concentration of avid collectors in Middelburg, a prosperous trading city on the south-west tip of Zealand that was inaccessible by road, but equally easily reached by sea from Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands and the coastal and estuarine cities of the Seven Provinces to the North, making it the second wealthiest city in the Seven Provinces after Amsterdam.  It was thus a natural meeting point between the Catholic south and the Protestant north, and at a time of migration, including of artists such as Bosschaert and his parents who fled religious persecution in their native Antwerp, a city where artistic ideas readily met and merged.  That Bosschaert should have become aware in the first years of the 17th Century of the flower pieces that Jan Brueghel the Elder was painting in Antwerp is hardly surprising, given that Middelburg is located at the point where Antwerp's river, the Schelde, meets the North Sea.  Bosschaert's very earliest still lifes betray such an awareness, but this recedes as the first decade of the 17th Century passes into its second half, and Bosschaert asserts his own artistic personality.  Middelburg has another part to play in Bosschaert's development, however.  Situated on a fertile alluvial plain, and blessed with a milder climate than the rest of The Netherlands, the city and its hinterland was famous for its rich soil and highly productive market gardens from the end of the 16th Century and throughout the 17th Century.  Before 1600 there was already there "a keen interest in "plants of the earth from distant shores", and it was in the gardens of Middelburg where the widespread cultivation of tulips first took place, along with improved varieties of roses, Narcissus, Irises and Lilies.6  A few years after Bosschaert painted the present flower piece, a celebrated large garden was established by Hortensia del Prado and her husband Pieter Courten in the Lange Noordstraat in Middelburg, very near where the painter was brought up.  The presence of an active community of art-lovers, of gardens planted with native and imported plants, and its accessibility to other artistic centres made Middelburg the ideal forcing ground for Bosschaert's genius to flourish, as it was to do for Adriaen Coorte much later in the century.        

This painting only surfaced in 1965, and was unknown to Laurens Bol when he published his catalogue raisonné entitled The Bosschaert Dynasty in 1960.7

The blooms depicted include two White Peonies, and then going clockwise from the lower left: Blue Aquilegia, Red Knautia, Tulip, Red and Blue Anemones, Wild Rose, Orange Aquilegia Chrysantha, Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria Melagris Pallida), Forget-me-not, Yellow Begonia and Viola.

Jean-Joseph Marcel was a French printer and engineer, who, as the former inscription suggests,  accompanied Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt as a member of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts.  There he was the first to recognize that the middle text of the Rosetta stone is Egyptian demotic script, and not Syriac, and to find a way of printing text from the block.  His Arabic-French dictionary dates from 1830, the time of the French conquest of Algeria.

1. Private collection; see S. Segal et al, in The Masters of Middelburg, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 1984, pp. 31-2, 120-1, no. 2, reproduced in color.
2. Private collection.  See L.J. Bol, Goede Onbekenden, Utrecht 1982, p. 46, reproduced fig. 1.
3. Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art; see Segal, op. cit., pp. 32-3, reproduced fig. 2; see also A. Chong & W. Kloek, Still Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle 1999, pp. 117-9, reproduced in color p. 118.
4. Bosschaert’s earliest dated work on panel appears to be from 1609.
5. According to Fred G. Meijer in a text written at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorisches Documentatie and sent on 6th January 2004.  Drs Meijer inspected the painting in the original in March 2003.  One of the dated paintings, on copper, 38.5 by 26.5 cm. was also formerly with Robert Noortman (see A. Chong & W. Kloek, op. cit., p. 219, reproduced fig. 5a).
6. See L.J. Bol, The Bosschaert Dynasty, Leigh-on-Sea 1960, pp. 15-16.
7.  Idem.