By the date of this picture, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was renowned as one of the greatest pioneers of the flower still life genre in the Netherlands. This beautifully preserved work on copper, which typifies the most highly regarded traits of the Bosschaert tradition, is hitherto unpublished and was unknown to scholars until circa 2004, when it was placed on long-term loan to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
Bosschaert developed his style to full maturity in Middelburg, Zeeland, where his family settled in circa 1587 following the religious persecution of their Protestant faith in their native Antwerp. This was the most logical place for the artist’s speciality to blossom, as by the end of the sixteenth century, the town boasted many outstanding gardens with the most comprehensive collections of flora in Holland. It was also home to the physician and botanist Mattias de l’Obel, whose Icones stirpium, seu, Plantarum tam exoticarum, quam indigenarum (Images of plants, both exotic and native, for students of botany), published in 1591, consisted of a vast series of scientifically recorded engravings of plants. Bosschaert no doubt took inspiration from such sources and studied the flowers of Middelburg gardens with great care. This is attested to by the scientific detail with which he rendered his bouquets, akin to flower ‘portraits’, probably basing them on drawings made seasonally from life. The artist worked and lived a very comfortable life in Middelburg until 1613, yet during the last years of his life, he was anything but stationary.
This painting was executed in Utrecht, where Bosschaert had taken up residence by 1616. It has been dated by Dr. Fred G. Meijer, to whom we are grateful, to circa 1618 (private correspondence, September 2019). It belongs to a small group of works, which are characterised by small-scale bouquets arranged in bulbous ceramic or glass vases (distinguished by contemporary Netherlanders as a blompot or blomglas piece), placed in an enclosed stone niche and enlivened with bees, flies and other insects. Only five other such flower pieces by the artist are known, all painted during his final years in Utrecht between 1617 and 1619: Bouquet of flowers in a niche, Vaduz and Vienna, Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections (inv. no. GE 57); Bouquet of flowers in a niche, dated 1618, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst (inv. no. KMSsp211); Still life of flowers in a berkemeijer glass beaker (Sotheby’s, New York, 26 January 2012, lot 25); Little bouquet in a niche, formerly Berlin, Th. Bauer; and Roses and Shells, formerly Private collection, Egypt (see L.J. Bol, The Bosschaert Dynasty, Leigh-on-Sea, 1960, pp. 64-5, nos. 32-6, pls. 20-22). While the present work is most comparable to the Liechtenstein picture, sharing with it the Epeira diademata (yellow cross spider) and the more simplified grey marble niche, the Wan-li vase with a golden mount in this picture is a unique motif in the group. This specific vase, decorated with a bird and carnations, was evidently a preferred prop in Bosschaert’s studio at this time, as it features in a flower piece by the artist of circa 1619 (fig. 1; sold Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 1990, lot 31). So inspiring was this composition that the artist’s brother-in-law and former pupil Balthasar van der Ast later copied the work almost exactly in circa 1622 (with Galerie de Jonckheere, Brussels and Paris).
Judging from the small scale of its copper support, and the artist’s meticulous, verisimilar treatment of his botanical specimens, this picture would have probably been commissioned by a wealthy collector to hang in a cabinet of curiosities, among scientific instruments, artefacts, paintings and naturalia. Lavishing care on his favoured motifs, Bosschaert here combines a variegated bouquet of flowers from different countries and seasons into one fantastical moment of blooming, with the rare yellow and red ‘Switser’ tulip, carnations, lily of the valley, forget-me-nots, an aquilegia vulgaris columbine, roses, tagetes, cyclamen, a poppy anemone, Spanish bluebells, a wild pansy and a French marigold. He renders the shells with such accuracy that they can be identified by modern conchologists as a yellow polymita picta (land snail) and a brown-and-white conus victoriae in the lower right of the niche. For the description of insects, Bosschaert must have been informed by both natural models and printed sources, like Joris Hoefnagel’s compendium of illuminated manuscripts depicting insects, animals and plants in his Animalia Rationalia et Insecta (c. 1575-80; fig. 2), disseminated through engravings by his son Jacob Hoefnagel in 1592. Bosschert's depictions of unusual species would have appealed to a collector’s erudition as well as their aesthetic sense, preserving botanical specimens with gem-like perfection even when the live models were no longer available. Yet Bosschaert’s cultivated audience will have read his bouquets as both rare specimens and symbols of religious and allegorical ideas, reminding them of edifying concepts such as worldly vanity or temperance.
The artist here discreetly places a Lasiommata megera (Wall brown) butterfly, an ancient symbol of the soul, on the white rose to the left, while above it on the niche sit a cross spider and bluebottle fly, symbolising the Christian battle between good and evil. Below them a flower, freshly fallen from the vase, hangs over the sill by droplets of water, symbolising transience, underscored by the cracks and chips in the stone niche, intimating that not even hard stone could withstand the ravages of time. The artist’s evident pleasure in his ability to copy nature is echoed in the words of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who wrote in his Convivium Religiosum of 1552: ‘we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a living one. In one we admire the artifice of nature, in the other the genius of the painter, in each the goodness of God’ (M. Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718, New Haven and London, 1996, p. 90).