Only in the last eighty years has Osias Beert the Elder come to prominence as one of the pioneers of still life flower painting in Flanders. Before this time, his reputation was as a master of the early Antwerp breakfast piece, and it was not until Curt Benedict’s investigative essay of 1938 that his flower pieces truly came to light (‘Un peintre oublié de natures mortes: Osias Beert’, L’Amour de l’Art, XIX, October 1938, pp. 307-313). Through careful examination of early Flemish bouquets, in glass or tigerware vessels, Benedict established the beginnings of an oeuvre that contained few signed, and no dated pictures, identifying works through the idiosyncrasies of Beert’s abundant bouquets, including those previously attributed to other artists. His investigation even led him to acquire the present picture in 1949, seemingly the first to own it as a masterpiece by Osias Beert the Elder.
Beert was probably born in Antwerp and became a pupil of Andries van Baesrode I in 1596 before joining the Antwerp guild as a master in 1602. In addition to his work as a still life painter of flowers, fruit and breakfast pieces, contemporary documents also described him as a cork merchant and a member of the Chamber of Rhetoric, De Olijftak (the Olive Branch), from 1615 until his death, suggesting an involvement in intellectual pursuits that went beyond painting. The fame he enjoyed in his lifetime is attested to by his numerous pupils, including Frans Ykens from 1615. Like his contemporaries Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Balthasar van der Ast and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Beert combined varieties of flowers from different countries and seasons into one fantastical moment of blooming, which for many wealthy collectors would have hung in cabinets of curiosities (collections of artefacts and naturalia) alongside paintings, scientific instruments and botanical specimens. The flower piece was an item of luxury and prestige, its perennial blooms retaining their commercial value beyond the ephemeral flower, as well as presenting rare and unusual plants, such as the famous striped tulip.
In this beautifully preserved picture, many of Beert’s distinctive motifs come to the fore: a dense composition of rather large blooms, painted in a quasi-geometric style, fill the greater part of the picture plane, with impasto outlines delineating individual elements and lighter flowers providing strong accents, painted thinly on a plain white ground. The artist’s bouquets are typically crowned by larger flowers, here the Madonna lily (lilium candidum), creating both a symmetrical composition and a religious overtone as a symbol of Catholic purity, flanked by the balancing tiger lily (lilium bulbiferum) and red peony. The balance of the lower half is tipped by a hanging rose to the left of the vase, too heavy for its sinuous stem, surrounded by fallen petals, symbols of transience. Through each stalk, petal and pistil Beert demonstrates the skilful subtlety for which he is best known, while painting with an explosive vitality so representative of early Flemish flower painting.