Ingvar Bergström first published this exquisite flower piece in 1973 as by an anonymous master working circa 1600 under the influence Joris Hoefnagel. By 1978 Bergström had become convinced by an attribution to Jacques de Gheyn, a view shared by E.K. Reznicek and F. Hopper Boom (1975-76), I.Q. van Regteren Altena (1983) and most recently by Fred Meijer of the RKD, to whom we are grateful. Apparently none of these scholars ever saw the present work in the original, its whereabouts having been largely unknown since 1971, which would explain why its measurements have consistently been recorded incorrectly as 15 x 10 cm., and its signature never remarked upon.
Van Regteren Altena recognised that all of the flowers in the present bouquet occur in the celebrated album of naturalistic miniatures executed by de Gheyn between 1600 and 1604, which was acquired shortly thereafter (if not commissioned by) the Emperor Rudolf II (now Paris, Fondation Custodia; see fig. 1). The flowers are of special scientific interest as they show newly cultivated varieties or rare specimens executed with minute precision and attention to detail. In this respect de Gheyn aligned himself with the rich tradition of natural history illustrations of which Dürer, Joris Hoefnagel, Hans Hoffman and Georg Flegel were key exponents. As first pointed out by Bergström, de Gheyn probably borrowed the motif of the centrally placed moth from Hoefnagel, who featured it to dramatic effect in a miniature of 1594 (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum; see fig. 2). Van Regteren Altena dates the present work slightly later than Bergström, circa 1603, rather than 1600, but at any rate before the Album left for Prague in 1604. The date places this picture among the very earliest pure flower pieces painted in oil in Holland.
De Gheyn’s nascent preoccupation with small naturalia in the years around 1600 coincided with his first attempts at working in oil. Like Goltzius, de Gheyn did not take up painting until relatively late in his career when, in his mid-thirties, he switched his energies from engraving to painting. His first works in this new medium were of flowers. Van Mander described de Gheyn’s first true painting as a cleen bloempotken naar het Leven (a small pot of flowers from life), which he praised as verwonderlijck (admirable), a painting which must have closely resembled this work, or indeed, as Boom has suggested (op. cit.), may even be the same picture. Only four other fower paintings by de Gheyn survive, all substantially larger and painted a decade later than this work: A glass vase with a bouquet, dated 1612 (The Hague, Mauritshuis); A glass bowl with flowers, 1613 (private collection); Flowers in a glass vase with a curtain, 1615 (Fort Worth, Kimball Museum); and Flowers on a rocky floor, circa 1620 (private collection).