Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg ?1593/4-1657 Delft)
Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg ?1593/4-1657 Delft)

Flowers, shells and insects on a stone ledge

Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg ?1593/4-1657 Delft)
Flowers, shells and insects on a stone ledge
signed 'B. van der. Ast..' (lower left)
oil on panel
9 3/8 x 13 5/8 in. (23.8 x 34.5 cm.)
In an early seventeenth-century, figured, ebony, cassetta frame (supplied by Wiggins, ref. 11053).
Cadwalader collection, Philadelphia, until 1975, when sold to Clyde Newhouse, New York.
with Edward Speelman, London, 1975, by whom sold to
Jean and Claire Thèves, St. Nom la Brèteche, Paris; Sotheby's, London, 11 December 1996, lot 24 (£529,500).
with Otto Naumann Ltd., New York, from whom acquired at The European Fine Art Fair, Maastricht, on 16 March 1998, by
Pieter and Olga Dreesmann (inventory no. B2).
S. Segal, in Masters of Middelburg, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 1984, pp. 16 and 61, note 27, fig. 16 (caption for fig. 14).
H. Devisscher, S. Beele, et al., Bloemen in de schilderkunst van de 16de tot de 20ste eeuw, exhibition catalogue, Brussels, 1996, p. 20, fig. 10.
A. Rüger, in Vermeer and the Delft School, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 218-9, no. 4.
L. Prosperetti-Van Hogendorp, 'Conchas Legere. Shells as trophies of
repose in northern European Humanism', Art History, XXIX, June 2006, p. 402, fig. 2.9.
P. Weideger, W. Bennett, D. Cawdell, and G. Harris, Celebrating the best twenty five years of TEFAF Maastricht, Antwerp, 2012, pp. 75-7, illustrated.
Washington, The National Gallery of Art, From Botany to Bouquets. Flowers in Northern Art, 31 January-31 May 1999, no. 6.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; and Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720, 19 June 1999-9 January 2000, no. 23.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and London, The National Gallery, Vermeer and the Delft School, 8 March-16 September 2001, no. 4.

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Georgina Wilsenach
Georgina Wilsenach

Lot Essay

This is one of Balthasar van der Ast's most original and refined still-lifes, in which a variety of seashells, flowers and insects are arranged with consumate care on a wide stone ledge. At the centre is a horn-shaped shell holding a spray of flowers that fan out to form a compositional arc in the background, which in turn echoes the positioning of the shells on the ledge. As Axel Rüger has observed recently: 'This spacious arrangement contrasts with the dense compositions of some of Van der Ast's bouquets and baskets of fruit, and it creates a sense of calm elegance and fragility' (op. cit., p. 218). Only one other painting by the artist that combines shells and flowers in this unusual way is known, a panel of around the same dimensions in an English private collection.

Van der Ast has taken considerable care with the present work to depict the shells and flowers in relative isolation, so that they can be observed individually as specimens. Like tulips, exotic seashells were highly desirable items in seventeenth-century Holland and vast prices were paid by collectors for the best and rarest examples. The shells in the present work are mostly from the Indo-Pacific region and they can all been identified (see below). The vogue for collecting shells, like tulip bulbs, was speculative and those who indulged were sometimes mocked as schelpenzotten (shell-fools). The satirist Roemer Visscher included a depiction of shells in his famous 1614 book of emblems Sinnepoppen, with the epigram: 'It is odd how a fool will spend his money'. As a consequence, shells in still-lifes have traditionally been interpreted as symbols of vanity and the transience of earthly beauty and possessions. By extension, in the Dreesmann picture, it has been argued that the chips in the stone ledge and the dead wasp can be considered as reminders of the limits of earthly existence and of inevitable decay and death, while, converesly, the grasshopper which sheds its skin and the caterpillar which will transform into a butterfly, may be read as symbols of rebirth and eternity.

The dating of Van der Ast's paintings is made difficult on account of the paucity of dated works after 1626. The Dreesmann painting has variously been dated to the late 1630s (S. Segal, op. cit.); circa 1630 (1999/2000 exhibition); and, most recently, to the mid-1630s (2001 exhibition). Whatever the precise dating, the inventiveness of the composition, the subtlety of lighting and unified tonality all point to this work having been painted in Delft, where Van der Ast settled in 1632.

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