From about 1890 until his death in 1930, the painter and writer Jacobus van Looy produced a series of fascinating close-ups of flower gardens, fields of clover, individual flowers and boughs of fruit. The colourful 'flower visions' of nasturtiums, in particular, demonstrate his approach of zooming in on a small area, frequently from above with the gaze focused on the subject. There is nothing to be seen of the sky. Also characteristic of these paintings are the abrupt cut-offs, a technique with which various artists, influenced by the advent of photography, experimented in the late nineteenth century. The work presented here, with its profusion of flowers and a scattering of butterflies, is an excellent example of such a selection of a small segment of nature.
Van Looy studied under the renowned August Allebé at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, where he belonged to the circle of the Eighties movement (Tachtigers). In 1884 he won the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to study abroad for two years. Whereas previously his work had been somewhat academic, after his return to Amsterdam he gradually developed a more impressionist and altogether personal style. At the same time he also emerged as a writer whose work was characterised by fantasy and impressionism.
In this large-scale Oostindische kers ('Augustus') the entire canvas is filled with flowers. As it is a representation of only one detail, there is no means of estimating the total area of the flower bed, which could stretch out endlessly beyond the edges of the painting. But just how misleading this impression can be is illustrated by what we know of De Tuin of 1893 (for De Tuin (private collection), see W. Loos (ed.), Langs velden en wegen. De verbeelding van het landschap in de 18e en 19de eeuw, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1997, p. 320, cat.no. 98; and Van der Smit-Meijer & Will 1998, op.cit., p. 106, cat.no. 24), Van Looy's earliest known 'cut-off' painting of nasturtiums. Cognate with the present work, and of the same format, it depicts flowers growing in what was no more than a tiny plot attached to the small house in Amsterdam's Pijp neighbourhood which he occupied with the elocutionist Titia van Gelder after their marriage in 1892. Titia sowed the seeds of the flowers which Van Looy painted en plein air in the summer of 1893. The picture portrays her amidst the flowers.
In 1894 they moved from Amsterdam to the rural village of Soest, where Van Looy, further elaborating the motif of orange-red flowers amongst green foliage, painted the daring composition Oostindische kers ('Augustus'). Whether this too was painted out of doors is uncertain. What we do know is that they had a beautiful garden in Soest which gave them great pleasure and was a source of inspiration for the artist. With the aid of sketches, he may have painted the picture in his studio in the winter, in which case the word Augustus in the title could refer to the August of 1895 when the flowers were in bloom.
During the years in Soest, Van Looy also produced a number of small paintings (on board or panel) of patches of clover fields and, in about 1900, the impressive Zomerweelde (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; see Van der Smit-Meijer (ed.) 1998, op.cit., p. 120, cat.no. 32), a glowing sea of flowers into which the viewer feels himself to be drawn. No nasturtiums here, but a profusion of vibrant bluish-purple blooms. Another difference is that the viewpoint is not directly above the subject, but in fact quite low. The field is closed off in the background by a hedge, with behind it a part of Van Looy's house and a glimpse of the sky.
Finally, in 1907, when the couple moved from Soest to Haarlem - Van Looy's native town, where he had spent most of his youth in an orphanage - he painted the radiant Bloemvisioen Oostindische kers (private collection; Ibid., p. 134, cat.no. 40). The title is apt: even more than Oostindische kers ('Augustus') a good ten years earlier, this fantastic riot of flowers may certainly be termed visionary. While the two works are comparable in their compositional structure, Bloemvisioen is more abstract in the sense that the colours dominate the form. The effect of white highlighting achieved in Oostindische kers by the delicate butterfly wings is rendered in the later work by means of several flowers in contrasting lighter colours.
All in all, besides smaller works, Van Looy painted four large canvases of 'cut-outs' of a wider expanse of flowers, three of them depicting nasturtiums. Chronologically, the vivid Oostindische kers ('Augustus') is the second of the three, originating in the early years of the Van Looys' residence in Soest (1894-1907). Interestingly, the nasturtium, clearly one of the artist's favourite flowers, also occurs in his literary oeuvre. In the first volume of his cycle of novels, De wonderlijke avonturen van Zebedeus (1910), the narrator, Van Looy's alter ego, describes the house and more especially the garden in Soest, relating how deep-toned nasturtiums tumble over the path, twist through the hedge, and burst forth like 'clotted crimson' and 'heart's blood' (J. van Looy, De wonderlijke avonturen van Zebedus, I, Amsterdam 1925 (2nd edition), pp. 163-164).
The painting now offered for sale was owned first by the artist and his wife, then by the family of Titia van Looy-van Gelder, passing by descent to the granddaughter of Titia's sister. According to the list of the artist's works drawn up by Titia, the painting was in their Haarlem house in 1934, the year in which it became a museum (Ibid., p. 134, cat.no. 40).
We are grateful to Drs Wiepke Loos for writing the catalogue note.