This highly refined flower picture by Balthasar van der Ast shows the extraordinary skill achieved by Dutch still-life painters only a few decades after the form first emerged as an independent genre in the Netherlands around 1600. Van der Ast's connection to the earliest innovators was strong, having studied in Middelburg with his brother-in-law, Ambrosius Bosschaert I. Born in Antwerp, Bosschaert later settled in Middelburg, where he founded a highly successful tradition of still-life painting, coined the 'Bosschaert Dynasty' by L.J. Bol. Sustained by his three sons, as well as Van der Ast and his brother Johannes, the dynasty persisted for four generations. Together these artists established Middelburg, and later Utrecht, where many of them relocated, as major centers of still-life painting in the Netherlands.
The present work depicts a bouquet of flowers in a fluted green glass vase with a gold-tipped rim and base, resting on a stone ledge pocked with meticulously rendered illusionistic cracks. Van der Ast favored this compositional type; a picture with a similar glass vase and lizard with a curled tail was included in the seminal exhibition Masters of Middelburg of 1984 (no. 14). In the present work, a blue and white iris stands at the top of the composition, supported by a mix of red, white and blue blossoms. This bold palette is not without nuance, however, for Van der Ast included passages such the rose at lower right, whose petals gently fade from pink to white. Enhancing the brilliant color and silhouettes of the individual flowers is the monochrome, unadorned setting. At lower center, Van der Ast prominently signed the picture. He left it undated, however, a common occurrence in his oeuvre after 1628.
The influence of Bosschaert and his son Ambrosius II is evident in Van der Ast's work, both in the elements depicted and their small-scale, compact format. Yet Van der Ast also strayed from the Bosschaert model, abandoning strict symmetry in favor of presenting his flowers from a variety of angles and in various stages of blossom. This technique lends volume and depth to the still-life while maintaining a balanced, harmonious composition. In another departure from Bosschaert, Van der Ast included a carefully studied lizard, likely inspired by the work of Roelandt Saverij, whose work Van der Ast would have encountered while living in Utrecht. Saverij had moved there after working in Prague for Rudolf II, whose affinity for rare and exotic plants and animals prompted Saverij to add motifs like lizards alongside his flower bouquets (see Flowers in a Glass of 1613 now in the National Gallery London; inv. L663). Other exotic elements depicted here by Van der Ast are the shells. Like rare flowers, seashells were highly desirable in the 17th-century Netherlands, and collectors paid vast sums for the best and rarest examples. To capture the forms in his still-lifes naturalistically, Van der Ast made drawings from nature, including the 71 studies of flowers and shells now in the Fondation Custodia, Institut Néerlandais, Paris (see Vermeer and the Delft School, exh. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, nos. 96-98). Such practices and the subsequent results, exemplified brilliantly in the present work, demonstrate the close link and reciprocal nature of fine art and the burgeoning field of scientific observation in Van der Ast's time (A. Wheelock, From Botany to Bouquets, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999, pp. 32-34).