This elegant still life is the only known surviving painting by Johannes van der Ast. A member of the illustrious 'Bosschaert Dynasty' of still-life painters formulated by L.J. Bol, Van der Ast was the older brother of celebrated flower painter Balthasar van der Ast. Only a small handful of works can be attributed to Johannes, although the possibility remains that works currently assigned to Balthasar could in fact be by his hand (Willigen and Meijer, op. cit., pp. 28-29). Like Balthasar, Johannes was the brother-in-law and likely student of Ambrosius Bosschaert. Bosschaert, who was born in Antwerp and later settled in Middelburg, founded a highly successful tradition of still-life painting that persisted for four generations, sustained by his three sons and the Van der Ast brothers, among others. Together these artists established Middelburg, and later Utrecht where many of them re located, as centers of still-life painting in the Netherlands. Floral paintings produced by this circle are recognizable by their carefully arranged bouquets composed of highly detailed blossoms, whose crisp edges and vivid color appear to radiate from the picture plane.
The present work depicts flowers in a vase on a stone ledge. The flowers, as noted by Bol, include tulips, a rose, carnation, columbine, cyclamen and creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides; Bol, op. cit., p. 526). Most of these flowers were exotic and highly prized in the Netherlands at this time, a trend that culminated in the famed 'Tulip mania' and subsequent crash of circa 1635-1637. The luxurious character of this bouquet is complemented by the inclusion of a wan-li vase, another treasured item in the Dutch Provinces in this period.
This painting clearly follows the model established by Bosschaert. In comparing this work to the Bosschaert's flower still-life in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam dated 1619, it is possible to see that both artists employed similar spare groupings of flowers, drops of water glistening on the leaves, and rounded wan-li vases. Monochrome, unadorned surroundings enhance the brilliant color and silhouettes of the individual flowers. The similarity of Van der Ast's painting to Bosschaert's work suggests that it too dates from around 1619 and therefore was created shortly before his premature death. It may even post-date his last record in archival sources, from 1618 (F. Meijer, private communication, 15 November 2011).
While evidently looking to the form established by Bosschaert, Van der Ast instilled the work with a refinement all his own. Unlike Bosschaert, he did not adhere to a strict symmetry, but instead arranged the diverse flowers to create a balanced composition, presenting them at a variety of angles and in various stages of blossom that add volume and depth to the still-life. The trompe-l'oeil effect is enhanced by the inclusion of a small fly resting on the ledge and the artist's initials (a form of signature his brother used as well in the years 1619-1620), which appear carved into the stone at the lower left. Perhaps most interesting, as noted by Bol, is Van der Ast's inclusion of the creeping bellflower visible in the upper left-hand corner (Bol, op. cit., p. 526). Unlike the other species, used repeatedly by members of the Bosschaert circle, the creeping bellflower was a wild plant found in the Netherlands. Its inclusion suggests that Van der Ast did not merely depict flowers because of their rarity or monetary value, but also for their sheer beauty and aesthetic contribution to the overall composition.