Described by the Dutch artist and biographer, Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719) as the “phoenix of all flower painters”, Van Huysum’s insistence on working from life and closely studying the world around him, resulted in his flower pictures being some of the most keenly sought after artworks, not just in Holland, but throughout Europe.
The present drawing, executed in a vigorous combination of pen and black ink, oiled black chalk and gray wash, is a virtuoso display, not only in the sophisticated handling of the media, but also composition, with Van Huysum able to create a sense of dynamism in what, by definition, is an utterly motionless subject matter. In the process he elevates the still life from a predominantly decorative art form into something of beauty and subtlety, imbued with an all-important underlying message about the transience of life. Where there is currently beauty, with flowers in full bloom, there will soon be decay, as others wither in their vase, or a single petal begins to hang free from the rest of a flower, its demise already underway.
Though the rather sketchy nature of the present work, with leaves, petals and stems accurately indicated through the seemingly liberal application of pen, chalk and wash, provides the drawing with a modern sensibility, Van Huysum would never have intended such drawings to have been sold from his studio. Instead they would have been used to provide prospective clients with a loose leaf model book, from which they could choose a composition that he would subsequently paint in oil. Whilst no surviving painting of this particular composition appears to survive, a drawn version, today in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zurich, possibly by Van Huysum, but rather weak in its execution when compared to our drawing, does exist.1
Other drawings by Van Huysum, drawn in an identical combination of media to our sheet, where his distinctive use of gray wash, expertly and intentionally coupled with the inherent white of the paper, creates a remarkable chiaroscuro effect, can be found in some of the world's most prominent public and private collections. Such examples include Study of flowers in a vase; with some stems lying around the base2 in the collection of the British Museum and A bouquet of flowers in a terracotta vase3 previously on the New York art market in 2008.
1. See M. H. Grant, Jan van Huysum 1682 - 1749 including a Catalogue Raisonné of the Artist's Fruit & Flower Paintings, Leigh-on-Sea 1954, p. 34, no. 317
2. London, British Museum, inv. no. 19126.96.36.199
3. Sale, New York, Christie’s, 24 January 2008, lot 154
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