Signed and dated to 1607, this luminous work demonstrates in brilliant detail Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s ability to combine an almost forensic study of individual flowers and insects with his characteristically elegant composition, colouring and execution. The work is painted on copper with a white chalk ground, allowing for a more intense radiance and clarity to be achieved.
Bosschaert, along with his contemporaries Jan Breughel I, Jacques de Gheyn II and Roelandt Savery, pioneered the genre of flower painting in the Netherlands during the early years of the seventeenth century. Here, in a centrally placed berkemeier glass, Bosschaert has carefully arranged a vibrant bouquet of intricately painted blooms. At the top are a large red rose and yellow and red variegated tulip. Beneath these is a profusion of smaller flowers with further tulips and roses, as well as others including narcissi, forget-me-not and the distinctive drooping ‘checkered’ head of a fritillaria at the centre. Across this careful arrangement of flora, numerous butterflies and other insects enliven the composition. The berkemeier is placed on a stone ledge and silhouetted against a dark background serving to focus the viewer’s attention on the jewel-like bouquet. The placement of a single red Pheasant’s-eye flower and Red Admiral butterfly on the stone ledge is a motif frequently employed by Bosschaert and one which was influential for his pupils and followers, especially Balthasar van der Ast.
After being forced to leave his native city of Antwerp in 1587, following religious persecution, Bosschaert settled in Middelburg. At this period, the city boasted some of the most comprehensive collections of flora in Holland and, during the last decades of the sixteenth century, emerged as a leading centre for the developing field of botany and the scientific study of plants. It was here, for example, that pioneering botanists like Matthias de l’Obel made systematic attempts to classify and catalogue plants according to their natural affinities, rather than their perceived medical uses as had previously been the norm. His Icones stirpium, seu, Plantarum tam exoticarum, quam indigenarum (Images of plants, both exotic and native, for students of botany), published in 1591, was one of a number of books featuring extensive scientific engravings of plants, which provided important models for painters like Bosschaert. Indeed, it is possible that Bosschaert himself, during his early years in Middelburg, was employed to create similarly technical watercolour ‘portraits’ of individual blooms. These studies may well have served as later models for his finished paintings.
The emerging interest in botany at the turn of the seventeenth century saw wealthy and educated collectors increasingly seek out rare and unusual blooms. The increasing competition and desire for these flowers resulted in the popularly termed ‘Tulip mania’, which swept the Netherlands during the 1620s and ‘30s. This period saw the fervent production and sale of different varieties of tulips commanding soaring prices (reaching as much as 2,000 or 3,000 guilders in 1624, the equivalent of a wealthy merchant’s average annual earnings) as collectors competitively sought to own and grow new, strikingly coloured types of the tulip. The most prized of these flowers were the so-called ‘broken’ variety which were infected with a virus to give them strikingly variegated colours. The prominent yellow and red tulip at the summit of Bosschaert’s painting is such a type, sometimes referred to as a Bizzarden (bizarre) variety. These specimens were often carefully reproduced in watercolour or drawings in a similar mode to Bosschaert’s own studies of individual flowers, to produce, effectively, catalogues for buyers, advertising the spectacular colouring of new varieties of flowers (fig. 1). Concurrent with this desire for living specimens was the desire for painted ‘flower pieces’, which, unlike the flowers themselves, were constantly in bloom and enabled the painter to combine flowers that grew at different times of the year into fictive compositions.