Schulz (1982, op. cit.) listed 27 surviving botanical studies by Saftleven. Dating from between 1680 and 1684, when the artist was in his early seventies, they were all made for one remarkable patron: the collector and botanist Agnes Block (1629-1704). After the death in 1670 of her first husband, an Amsterdam silk merchant, Agnes bought the country house of Vijverhof on the banks of the Vecht river. Here she devoted herself to establishing a botanical garden and aviary which contained a number of rare specimens: hibiscus, lemon trees and, most famously, the first edible pineapple in Europe. Almost from the moment that she bought Vijverhof, she commissioned artists to come to stay at the house and make drawings of the plants and animals in her collection. The first artists to work for her were Pieter Holsteijn (1614-1673) and Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619-1678), followed in the late 1670s by Willem de Heer (1638-1681) and Pieter Withoos (1654-1693). Dated drawings by Saftleven show that he was drawing at Vijverhof in 1680 and 1682-4: almost all his botanical drawings from 1682-4 are executed on paper measuring around 35 x 25 cm, like the present work, although his earliest studies, such as the 1680 study of A Mullein Pink in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass., tend to be on slightly smaller sheets (Seventeenth-Century Dutch Drawings: A Selection from the Maida and George Abrams Collection, exhib. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum and Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1992, no. 100). After Saftleven's death in 1685, Agnes Block turned to other artists to continue her project: Johannes Bronkhorst (1648-1726), Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and Johanna Helena Herolt Graff (Merian's daughter; 1668-1723) all worked for her in the 1690s. In total, she commissioned around four hundred drawings, which were bound into albums. The van Regteren Altena collection also includes another example of Saftleven's botanical studies, which will be offered in a future sale (Fig. 1).
In creating her garden, and in seeking to understand and classify her specimens, Agnes was motivated by the belief that nature itself was imperfect until it had been refined by art. This philosophy permeated all her endeavours and was expressed most vividly in a medal she arranged to be cast in 1700, four years before her death. Here she appears as the personification of 'Flora Batava', accompanied by the inscription 'Fert Arsque Laborque Quod Natura Negat [art and labour bring about what nature cannot achieve]'. This was a highly appropriate motto: she worked to subdue nature into the more ordered and more perfect form of a garden, but her patronage of Saftleven and other botanical artists also served to transform her plant specimens into images that are both documents and striking works of art.