Previously unpublished, this is an important addition to a small number of large-scale flowerpieces that together constitute Jan Breughel the Elder’s crowning achievement as a still-life painter. Apart from the monumental Flower Vase in Bucharest (162 x 132cm.), this is the artist’s largest known work in this genre and the only known example on this approximate scale still remaining in private hands (see K. Ertz, Jan Breughel der Altere, Lingen 2008-2010, III, nos. 420-460). Although, in the upper part of this picture (notably upper left), areas of the paint surface have been damaged and clumsily restored, passages of the central and lower quadrant are particularly well preserved. The confident handling of paint and the exquisitely rendered detail in these passages demonstrate the distinctive finesse that is characteristic of the artist’s best work.
The composition is complex and shows a development away from the more ordered and symmetrical still-lifes of Breughel’s earlier career. Here, as in his circa 1620 flower-piece in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), a dense group of smaller blooms is grouped closer to the top of the vase, focused slightly to the right of the centre of the panel. Above this, Breughel introduces a strong diagonal, moving upward from the small yellow tulip at the left toward the lilies at the upper right. The vase in which Breughel’s spectacular bouquet is arranged appears to have been an object which was kept in the painter’s workshop and which recurs in several still-lifes from the painter’s later career, including the Antwerp picture (mentioned above) and that dated to circa 1622 in Bucharest (Muzeul National de Arta al României). The vase is made of glazed clay and decorated with roundels, depicting sculpted images of Ceres (at the left) and Narcissa (at the right), supported in the centre by a winged grotesque.
Breughel was the first artist in the southern Netherlands to paint independent floral still-lifes. His first recorded flower piece was made for Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) in 1606 (Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana). The artist, who had been in Italy between 1590 and 1596, but had since returned to the Netherlands, maintained a correspondence with his patron and his agent Ercole Bianchi and their letters are greatly revealing about the origin and the intentions of his still-lifes. Breughel discussed in 1606 his commencement of a floral picture, noteworthy ‘as much for naturalness as for the beauty and rarity of various flowers, some are unknown and little seen in this area; for this, I have been to Brussels in order to depict some few flowers from nature that are not found in Antwerp’ (A. Chong and W. Kloek, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 110). The expense and rarity of exotic cultivated blooms made both their real and painted forms valuable and desirable. Indeed, Breughel described how he had ‘invested all [his] skill’ in Borromeo’s picture, stating ‘I do not believe that so many rare and different flowers have ever been painted before, nor finished with such diligence’ (ibid.). Collectors’ cabinets frequently included vases of rare flowers and their juxtaposition with meticulously detailed paintings of ‘impossible’ profusions of blooms (which would have been difficult to assemble in reality, given the disparate times at which each blossomed) would have been of pleasing interest for discriminating collectors, presenting the opportunity to marvel at the skill of a painter and to compare his detailed rendering of nature with the real thing. Similarly, while still-life painting of the seventeenth century is often discussed in terms of its reference to vanitas themes of fleeting enjoyments and the approach of decay, Breughel evidently did not consider his paintings in this manner, intending that they remain ‘a fine sight in winter’ when real flowers were unavailable. Cardinal Boromeo evidently agreed, describing that ‘when winter encumbers and restricts everything with ice’, he would still be able to enjoy the ‘very stable and endurable’ flowers which Breughel had painted (ibid., p. 112).
This emerging interest in the natural world, its wonders and its curiosities, can further be appreciated in the present panel through the inclusion of a variety of rare insects alongside the flowers. Most prominent and notable of these, at the bottom right, is Breughel’s inclusion of a large harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus). These insects were native to South America and Breughel’s model would probably have been based on specimens he had been able to observe first-hand in the Wunderkammer of interested naturalists and collectors.
A copy of the present work by Jan Breughel the Younger is in the Museum of Fine Arts, St Petersburg, Florida.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred Meijer for confirming the attribution on the basis of first-hand inspection.