Unrecorded since its appearance in the Papin sale in 1873, this beautifully preserved still life represents a significant addition to the oeuvre of Jan Davidsz. de Heem. As noted by Mr. Fred Meijer of the RKD, for whose asistance in cataloguing this lot we are very grateful, it should be dated to the late 1660s, the probable early Dutch provenance strengthening the supposition that it was painted during the artist's years in Utrecht (1667-1672).
De Heem is justifiably regarded as one of the greatest still-life painters of the seventeenth century. By the 1660s, his mastery of composition, light, colour and finish was complete and is displayed to admirable effect in this example. Although his most flamboyant works are arguably the lavish pronk still lifes of which he is regarded as the inventor, one might justifiably regard his pure flower still-lifes as best displaying the subtlety of which he was equally capable. Deceptively simple in their subject matter and compositions, these pieces arguably represent de Heem's most significant reaction - and contribution - to the still-life tradition established in the United Provinces, and more specifically Middelburg and then de Heem's native Utrecht, by Ambrosius Bosschaert, Roelandt Savery and Balthasar van der Ast.
In his youth, de Heem would have been entirely familiar with that tradition - after all, Savery's masterful Bouquet in a niche in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, was only painted in 1624, the year before the departure of de Heem's family to Leiden. His continuing travels to Utrecht would have kept him in contact with the gradual simplification of composition that was to produce such pieces as Ambrosius Bosschaert II's Still life in a vase of 1635 (Utrecht, Centraal Museum) that may be regarded as the direct precursors to de Heem's eponymous works. There is no question, however, that that legacy was gradually falling in quality and innovation and, in comparison for example with the tonal style evolving in Haarlem, looking increasingly retardataire.
To that tradition, therefore, de Heem's contribution, an appreciation for light and detail that he had experienced in Leiden with the baroque swagger that he had learned in the Southern Netherlands, was critical. It resulted in a stylistic fusion that would quickly come to dominate the local market and that would be perpetuated in the United Provinces by the work of such pupils as Abraham Mignon and Jacob Marrell and that would ultimately evolve in the eighteenth century, perhaps most notably through Rachel Ruysch, into the extravagant assemblages of Jan van Huysum. It would not, indeed, be an exaggeration to see paintings such as the present work and the celebrated still life in the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, as representing the most important development in Dutch flower painting since the arrival of Ambrosius Bosschaert in Middelburg in 1593.
De Heem's composition is artfully designed behind the apparently natural arrangement of flowers and fruit. The central structure is the classic S-design that was so popular in northern baroque flower painting (for example in the oeuvres of Van Aelst or Verelst) and that de Heem was one of the first to employ. This device, broadly created by the sweep from the poppy anemone lower left, through the white rose, the yellow rose and up to the columbinem is here further strengthened by the elegant curves of the wheat stalks. Around that frame, objects have been carefully placed to complement and balance each other - Van Hoogstraten's 'houding' (Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst, etc., Rotterdam, 1678, p. 300; discussed by Paul Taylor, 'The concept of houding in Dutch art theory', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 55, 1992, pp. 210-32).
So, for example, occasional complementary colours such as blues and yellows, yellows and purples and, in particular, reds and greens are used to punctuate the more prevalent analog colours, noticeably yellow/oranges and greens; at the same time the juxtaposition (for example with the morning glory and the provins rose) of hot and cold colours enhance the sense of depth within the picture that is created by the basic arrangement. These devices are further enhanced, and the whole painting given an additional flair designed to delight the eye - as well as to show off the artist's skills - by trompe l'oeil techniques such as the exquisite reflections on the glass vase, the jewel-like water droplets, the scattered insects (perhaps particularly the ants on the white rose) and the stalk of wheat and sprig of redcurrants hanging over the stone ledge.
The remarkable quality of this painting is fully indicative of the heights that de Heem's art achieved at this period, and the extraordinary impact that he had on his contemporaries is evident in the direct debt displayed at this time by Mignon. The latter assisted and was taught by de Heem in his studio in Utrecht, and the two artists' abilities are such that at times it is extremely hard to differentiate between the two: indeed, commenting on the present picture, Fred Meijer notes that it is even possible that Mignon assisted his master, for example in the anemone lower left. He notes, however, that 'the degree of collaboration between the two (if any) is something I have not been able to solve - if it can be solved at all ... the overall airy gracefulness of this picture is something that Mignon was incapable of attaining and neither have I ever found this soft, papery quality of the roses and such delicacy of the morning glory with him' (private correspondence).'
Either way, in assessing de Heem's influence, the similarities and differences between the two artists' styles and intents are probably more instructive than any qualitative assessments: so, for example, one might consider the number of compositional devices (and plants) used by de Heem in the present picture that were re-employed by Mignon in pictures such as the Still life of flowers in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, or that sold, Bonhams, London, 10 December 2003, lot 53 (£1,450,000). The biggest difference, however, is perhaps not in technical quality as much as the artist's own design: Mignon achieving the bold visual effect, filling the composition for the most immediate impact, in place of the subtle restraint evident in his master's work.