DOCUMENTED SINCE 1764, this picture has long been acknowledged as one of Jan Davidsz. de Heem's masterpieces. Sam Segal described it in 1990 as 'one of his most beautiful flower pieces', a view that has recently been roundly endorsed by Fred Meijer of the RKD, who is preparing the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work (Meijer delivered a public lecture about the picture at Christie's, Amsterdam, on 6 May 2012). In the context of his flower still-lifes, an aspect of De Heem's art that he did not take up properly until the 1650s, this is a veritable tour-de-force, dazzling both in terms of its dynamic composition and the almost incomprehensible finesse of its execution. Moreover, these qualities can be appreciated much as the artist originally intended, by virtue of its excellent state of preservation (for a full technical account of the picture's state see A. Wallert and J. Dik, op. cit., pp. 38-51).
De Heem has composed the still-life with characteristically meticulous attention to detail. Within a defined space, in which sunlight can be seen falling on the back wall from a high window on the left (the window can only be seen in the reflection on the glass vase), De Heem has arranged the various components on a table draped with an Ushak carpet and a red silk cloth. He adopts a monumental, pyramidal composition in which the arrangement of the flowers represents the apex, with the two eye-catching white lilies in the centre. The two plates placed either side of the vase add weight to this basic shape while the silver tazza placed on the left reinforces the left diagonal. In order to instill dynamism into this symmetrical arrangement, however, De Heem cleverly positions the bouquet off-centre and uses a strong diagonal axis from the lower left to upper right. In this way, the eye is led from the corner of the table to the tazza, the two roses and finally up to the rising stem of the tulip and the wheat sheaf in the upper right. This sense of movement is accentuated lower down in the composition by the diagonal arrangement of the peaches, which are balanced by the orange and cherries on the right, and by the prominent stalk of wheat spilling out of the vase. The colours, evenly distributed and echoing each other through the composition, further enhance this effect of exuberant dynamism.
Surely the most distinctive element in this still-life is the silver tazza, which is one of the most precious and ornate objects to be found in De Heem's art. The stem features a satyr standing over a massive dog, holding up a young Bacchus, who, with raised arms, supports the cup. The rim of the cup is decorated with garlands of grapes. Such Bacchic subject matter is obviously appropriate for its function and was commonly depicted on luxurious drinking vessels in the seventeenth century. The intricate design would imply almost certainly that it was painted from life, although attempts to identify a prototype for it have thus far proved unsuccessful.
A consummate observer of nature, De Heem relishes in the depiction of these various elements and their different forms and textures. From the smooth, reflective silver vessel, to the feathery touch of the bird's wings and the woven carpet, De Heem's understanding of material form is extraordinary. Other notable examples of his skill in this department can be seen in the way that he renders the contrast between the peach's velvety skin and its juicy flesh and the reflections of the fruit on the silver plates. The astonishing verisimilitude of De Heem's painting is achieved by virtue of his complete mastery of technique. The paint is applied in minute detail and with painstaking glazing so that the individual brushstrokes become imperceptible. His rigorous control over his medium and the extraordinary level of refinement that he achieved was unrivalled by any other contemporary painter of still-lifes.
This painting has traditionally been dated to the second half of the 1660s, after De Heem's return to his native city of Utrecht in 1665. Meijer dates it slightly later, circa 1671, certainly earlier than the Garland of Fruit and Flowers of 1675 (Sotheby's, London, 5 December 2007, lot 38, £1.14 million), his only known dated work after 1655, but probably before his move from Utrecht back to Antwerp in 1672. Many of De Heem's most ambitious works executed during this period are signed with an 'R' after his name, which has given rise to much speculation as to its precise meaning. Segal addressed the matter in 1990, venturing various possible explanations -- that it might refer to 'Ridder' (knight), that it was the initial of a town or place, or that it meant retouched by the artist (op. cit., p. 218). More plausibly it has since been suggested that it meant 'repatriat', referring to De Heem's move back to his hometown of Utrecht. Another theory has it that it means 'Refecit', to signal that the work had been completed or refinished by De Heem as part of a collaborative studio practice of some kind. Both his son Cornelis de Heem (1631-1695) and Abraham Mignon (1640-1679) were active in De Heem's Utrecht workshop in this period and certain De Heem elements do recur in the latter's work. For instance, the tulip in the upper right of the present work seems to have been a kind of shared signature motif that appears in several works by both artists. See for example Mignon's still-lifes in Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (inventory no. 3026), one formerly with Richard Green and another in a private collection, which all include the flower in roughly the same position in the composition (see M. Kraemer-Noble, Abraham Mignon, Petersberg, 2007, nos. 75-7).
The exact meaning of the 'R' may never be known and is still a puzzle to scholars including Meijer. What is certain is that the 'R'-signed paintings include many of De Heem's best, or, in Segal's words many of 'the pinnacles of the master's art' (op. cit., 1990, p. 218; with a list of the 'R'-signed paintings under note 5). Meijer knows of fifteen to seventeen such signed paintings, most in major museums. On account of their exceptional quality, he rejects the idea that that they could have been produced with the help of an assistant, observing in only one or two works a small degree of collaboration with Mignon, which no doubt was the case with other De Heem paintings that are not signed with the 'R'.
We are grateful to Fred Meijer of RKD, The Hague, for confirming the attribution and for his assistance with this catalogue entry.