An extravagant bouquet fills a terracotta vase in this exquisite still life by Jan van Os. Pale pink roses and peonies appear at the center of the composition, intersected by a graceful diagonal made by the stems of the cockscombe at the lower left and the multi-blossomed red auricula at the upper right. This diagonal roughly divides the bouquet between the blossoms that appear in light and those in deep shadow. The white petals of the narcissus and hollyhocks lead the eye to the upper left while the weight of the peony at the lower right draws the viewer's attention to a nest sitting next to the vase on the marble ledge, filled not with tastefully arranged eggs but with squirming, cheeping newborn chicks.
The bird's nest with eggs was an established motif in flower painting of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and can be seen in works such as Jan van Huysum's Flowers in a vase of 1726 in the Wallace Collection, London. As did blossoms in varying states of decay, the bird's nest and eggs suggested the passage of time, the changing of the seasons, and the cycle of life. Van Os' introduction of newborn chicks not only enlivens the composition and adds the conspicuously absent quality of noise to an otherwise silent genre, it playfully engages the pictorial tradition from which he emerged. Having attained the level of technical skill achieved by his predecessor, van Huysum, van Os takes the genre one step further - a kind of one-upsmanship in the realm of nature studies. Nests with newborn chicks appear in other of van Os' works (one with Richard Green in 2004) and he introduces into his compositions other elements not usually seen in floral still lifes, such as plates of fish, in a painting from 1772 (National Gallery, London). Other of van Os' innovations include the combination of fruit and flowers and the use of a palette characterized by greater contrast, making for a more dramatic effect.
Jan van Os was one of the most esteemed artists of the eighteenth century. He moved to The Hague early in his life and was apprenticed to Aert Schouman. He began his career painting seascapes in the manner of Jan van de Cappelle and Willem II van de Velde but is best known for still lifes such as this one. Van Os was recognized internationally and his still lifes were highly valued in England (where he exhibited at the Society of Arts in London from 1773 to 1791), France, and Germany. Dated flower and fruit pieces survive from 1765 and many drawings and watercolors by the artist are known; some based on finished paintings, others appear to be preparatory studies, and a third group which were considered independent works of art.