Trained in the workshop of his brother-in-law Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, a pioneer of the Netherlandish still life tradition, Balthasar van der Ast broadened the pictorial language of the genre, incorporating a wider variety of objects into his paintings and using a more diverse and varied number of compositional formats. Here, the painter has combined two elements which he frequently depicted throughout his oeuvre: a bouquet of flowers set within an ornamental Wan-li vase, and a platter of fruit. The earliest known painting in which the master arranged these components together is a panel, dated to between 1620 and 1621, now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 1). This work, which has almost identical dimensions to the present picture, similarly depicts a large Wan-li dish laden with apples, grapes and other fruit, set alongside a small vase containing an opulent bouquet of tulips, roses, irises, lily-of-the-valley and other flowers. While the ledge in the Rijksmuseum picture is draped with a grey-green cloth, it is similarly strewn with shells, flowers and fruit and populated by numerous meticulously rendered insects. The more closely grouped elements in the present still life suggest that it was painted after the Amsterdam painting, when the painter had more experience in gathering and combining various motifs into a single, united work. Though van der Ast continued to produce compositions of this format until the 1630s, it seems most probable that this panel dates to the early 1620s. Indeed, stylistically, the panel is closely comparable with dated paintings like the Still life of fruit on a porcelain dish with shells, flowers and a lizard of 1623 (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille). While Wan-li vases appear frequently throughout van der Ast’s oeuvre, the present example is identical with that found in a small panel of Carnations in a wan-li vase, dated to 1622 (P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam). Seen from a slightly different angle (thus suggesting that van der Ast studied an existing object rather than inventing the design), both feature an ornamental scheme of blue glazing with a bird, its stomach left in unpainted white glaze, perched on a rock and surrounded by foliage.
Van der Ast’s composition presents many of its elements in relative isolation. This is likely in part the result of his practice of using detailed preparatory studies of individual blooms, shells and insects which he would then work into his compositions. However, the technique also allowed various elements to be closely observed and studied by the viewer as individual specimens. The exotic shells (identified from left to right as Mitra episcopalis, Conus marmoreus, Lambis scorpius, Turbo sarmaticus and Murex pomem), for example, appear frequently in van der Ast’s work and would have been highly prized objects in Holland during the seventeenth century, commanding vast prices from interested collectors. The present examples mostly came from the Indo-Pacific region and would have likely been imported to the Low Countries by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Van der Ast himself may have owned a number of these shells, for similar species recur throughout his works.
The detail and precision of van der Ast’s work allowed contemporary viewers to layer numerous interpretations and allusive meanings to the work. Frequently, the depiction of flowers and fruit has been interpreted as representing the transience of life, symbolized by the inevitable decay of the painted flora. Still lifes like the present one could also be understood as celebrations of the versatility, variety and complexity of God’s creation. Moreover, the various elements arranged across the present composition might be interpreted as representative of the Four Elements (which made up Creation): the flowers, fruit and stone of the ledge would thus represent Earth; the drops of dew and the shells, Water and the flying insects, Air. Fire may have been evoked through the gold mount of the vase, forged in fire, as well as the lizard, often associated with this element during the period.