PREVIOUSLY ASCRIBED TO RACHEL RUYSCH, this still-life was identified as the work of Simon Verelst by Fred Meijer in 1984, and subsequently exhibited at Dulwich. It is dated 1666 and is therefore one of the only paintings in Verelst's oeuvre that can with certainty be said to have been painted in Holland, before the artist moved to London in 1669, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. Even though he was only 22-years old at the time of its completion, the painting does not show the inexperienced hand of a young artist -- on the contrary, it illustrates that Verelst had at a young age fully developed the virtuosity and skill for which the 'God of Flowers' rightly came to great fame in England.
Simon Verelst must have established himself rather rapidly upon his arrival in London in 1669. Samuel Pepys, reported in his celebrated diary on an evening visit to the painter's studio on 11 April that year: 'Everelst [...] did show us a little flower=pott of his doing, the finest thing that ever I think I saw in my life -- the drops of Dew hanging on the leaves, so as I was forced again and again to put my finger to it to feel whether my eyes were deceived or no. He doth ask 70l [pounds] for it; I had the vanity to bid him 20l -- but a better picture I never saw in my whole life, and it is worth going twenty miles to see' (R. Latham and W. Matthews, eds., The Diary of Samuel Pepys, London, IX, 1976, pp. 514-5).
Pepys's enthusiasm for the artist was well placed, as evinced in the present picture. Verelst captures the sumptuous freshness of the arrangement in the feathery carnations, broad-leafed peonies and fragile, almost translucent petals of the poppies, and hints that this beauty is transitory. He simultaneously gives a sense that this perfection is fleeting -- not all of the flowers are in full bloom, but in a state of transition with signs of decay such as the brittle, withering rose leaves on which he skillfully highlights the fine leaf veins and the pink roses collapsing under the weight of their own petals. While some of the flowers are still in bud others have already dropped their petals and have turned into seed-containing fruit. The pocketwatch lying on the stone ledge is another reminder of the passage of time.
The present picture has an illustrious provenance: it was acquired by Johann I Josef, Prince of Liechtenstein (1760-1836) in 1822. His great passion being the Italian and Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, he is said to have spent the astonishing sum of 300,000 guilders between 1805 and 1829 and thus expanded the collection of the princely house by a third; in 1833 the collection comprised 1,648 objects (K. Hoess, Fürst Johann II. von Liechtenstein und die bildende Kunst, Vienna, 1908, p. 28). The inventory included the Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen by Frans Hals, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, as well as the present picture (op. cit., p. 32, inventory no. 602). His son Johann II (1840-1929) reduced the collection drastically so that only 839 works were listed in his gallery catalogue of 1885, but this still-life did not leave the collection until 1956. Both Hofstede de Groot and Grant published the painting as by Ruysch. It fits, however, very well in Verelst's oeuvre and although few of his works are dated it can be closely compared to A vase of flowers in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (fig. 1) and another still-life in the Museum Bredius, The Hague, which is dated to 1669.
We are grateful to Fred Meijer of the RKD, The Hague, for confirming the attribution after first-hand inspection of the work, and to Dr. Arthur Stögmann, Hausarchiv der Regierenden Frsten von und zu Liechtenstein, Vienna, for providing provenance information.