Herman Saftleven (Rotterdam 1609-1685 Utrecht)
Herman Saftleven (Rotterdam 1609-1685 Utrecht)

A litchi tomato (Solanum sisymbriifolium)

Herman Saftleven (Rotterdam 1609-1685 Utrecht)
A litchi tomato (Solanum sisymbriifolium)
signed with monogram and dated 'HS. f. 1683. den 31 octob:', and inscribed 'Solanúm pomiferúm frutescens Africanúm / spinozúm, nigricans boraginis flore / foliis profunde laciniate' (verso)
watercolour, bodycolour and gum arabic, black chalk framing lines, fragmentary Strasburg lily watermark with letters VR
35.5 x 25.6 cm.
Commissioned by Agnes Block (1629-1704) for her collection at Vijverhof.
Possibly Valerius Röver, Delft (1686-1739) (his inventory, Kunstboek 29, no. 3, 'Malva Indica...').
Possibly Samuel van Huls (1655-1734), The Hague; Yver, Amsterdam, 14 May 1736, lot 3882 ('2 Grands Livres contenant 7 Titres & 252 Pièces en miniature; representant des fleurs & plantes étrangères & autres, cultivées par Agnes Block à Vijverhoff, & peintres d'après nature par plusieurs maîtres fort renommés; comme Withorst, Withoos, Herm: Saftleven, Herold & autres').
Ignatius Franciscus Ellinckhuysen (1814-1897), Rotterdam; Frederik Muller & Cie., Amsterdam, 16 April 1879, lot 234.
Charles M. Dozy (1852-1901), Leiden; R.W.P. de Vries, Amsterdam, 6 May 1902, lot 176.
A.G. Bienfait, Oude Hollandsche tuinen, The Hague, 1943, p. 176, note 1.
W. Schulz, 'Blumenzeichnungen von Herman Saftleven d. J.', Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, XL, 1977, no. 22, fig. 17.
W. Schulz, Herman Saftleven 1609-1685: Leben und Werke mit einem kritischen Katalog der Gemälde und Zeichnungen, Berlin and New York, 1982, no. 1442, as 'Nachtschattengewächs (Solanum)', fig. 236.
Dordrecht, Dordrechts Museum and Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Bekoring van het kleine, 1959-60, no. 72, fig. 12.

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Lot Essay

This study of the Litchi Tomato Plant is one of 27 surviving botanical studies by Herman Saftleven (Schulz, 1982, op. cit.). Dating between 1680 and 1684 these were all commissioned by the extraordinary collector and botanist Agnes Block (1629-1704). Block began her remarkable career as a patron shortly after the death of her first husband, a silk merchant, in 1670. She purchased Vijverhof, a country estate on the banks of the river Vecht, and used the property to establish a botanical garden and aviary in which she famously cultivated rare specimens of fauna and flora including the first edible pineapple grown in Europe. Block enthusiastically commissioned artists to record her natural specimens and Vijverhof became an epicenter of botanical art, Block’s patronage attracting the most skilled artists in the field.

Dated drawings show that Saftleven was working at Vijverhof in 1680 and between 1682 and 1684. The works he produced in the latter period, like this study and another from the van Regteren Altena collection (Christie’s, London, 10 July 2014, lot 70), are large compositions on paper measuring around 35 by 25 centimeters. This study of the Litchi Tomato, a prickly plant with small edible fruits, is one of two drawings Saftleven made of plants from the nightshade family for Block; the other is in the British Museum, London (Schulz, 1982, op. cit., no. 1441, pl. 234). Saftleven was in his early seventies at the time he worked for Agnes Block and after his death in 1685 she commissioned other artists to continue recording her specimens in the 1690s including Johannes Bronkhorst (1648-1726), Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) and Merian’s daughter, Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff (1668-1723) (see lot 247 in this sale).

In total, Block commissioned around 400 drawings, which she had bound and kept in albums. These drawings provide a valuable historic record of the intersection of science and art in the 17th Century. Though seemingly naturalistic depictions, drawings such as the present one were not typically produced ad vivum but instead were idealized versions of reality. These drawings were designed to communicate all known information about a plant in a single image. The function of adapting reality in this way was not simply a project of beautification but primarily a tool for effective scientific record. Saftleven, for example, even skilfully shows us the interior make-up of the Litchi Tomato with a cross section of a branch elegantly included at the bottom of the composition.

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