In a perfect state of preservation, this exuberant flower still life is a choice example of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s mature work. De Heem is rightly regarded as one of the most accomplished still-life painters of the Dutch Golden Age. He is credited with the invention of the pronk, or sumptuous, still life combining precious objects with fruit and elaborate dishes. He also excelled as a painter of flowers, a genre he took up later in his career, around the 1650s, which he subsequently utterly transformed. Born in Utrecht in the Northern Netherlands, but active in Antwerp for a large part of his life, he led a peripatetic career, exemplifying the tendency of seventeenth-century artists to move between the Northern and Southern Netherlands, even as the region splintered due to the Dutch revolt against Spain. Through his frequent relocations, de Heem gained exposure to a rich variety of flower still-life imagery and this knowledge undoubtedly fuelled his creation of innovative paintings, celebrated for their dynamism and extraordinarily fine naturalistic detail.
In this picture, dated to circa 1673 by Fred Meijer of the RKD, de Heem exhibits the sophistication of his compositional technique: the pictorial structure, seemingly a natural arrangement of flowers, is in fact the product of highly-developed artistry. By adopting a pyramidal composition with a sunflower at its pinnacle, he lends monumentality to the painting. Yet he instils movement through diagonal lines, such as that going from the collapsed tulip at the lower left up to the elegant iris at the upper right. This line is further paralleled by the diagonal arrangement of the apricots and the cherries. Colours, evenly distributed and echoing each other across the composition, enforce this dynamism. The contours created by the flower stems and stalks of wheat extending beyond the bouquet continually draw the eye to, and through, the flower arrangement, focusing the viewer’s attention on each meticulously rendered bloom before leading it on to the next. By placing a white hydrangea in the shade in the lower right of the image de Heem further creates an unprecedented sense of spatial depth and three-dimensionality.
A consummate observer of nature, de Heem appears to relish the depiction of varied textures, from the feathery touch of the drooping willow catkins on the left, to the shimmering drops of water adorning various petals. He contrasts the apricots’ velvety skin and their juicy flesh, as well as the play of light on the glass vase, both translucent and reflective, providing the viewer with a glimpse of the window beyond the picture plane. This astonishing verisimilitude is achieved thanks to a masterful technique – through minute handling and painstaking glazing, the brushstrokes become imperceptible. In this, de Heem belongs to the tradition of the fine painters or fijnschilderen heralded by Gerrit Dou and his followers (Sam Segal, 1990, p. 50). His rigorous control over his medium and the extraordinary level of refinement that he achieved was unrivalled by any other contemporary painter of still lifes.
Thanks to this technical virtuosity, de Heem conveys the sense of material richness so typical of his pronkstilleven. The bouquet is composed of the most precious and uncommon flowers traded in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. The two eye-catching striped tulips were costly hybrid specimens. Other fashionable flowers are carefully rendered, such as the blooming pink anemone at the centre right, the heavy red rose to the right, and the splendid red carnation with its crumpled petals. The sense of lavishness conveyed by the harmonious floral arrangement is furthered by the exotic and expensive fruit: apricots, cherries and figs. The rarity and value of these goods suggests that for many seventeenth-century viewers this work would have been primarily understood and appreciated as an image of opulent objects of luxury (P. Taylor, Dutch Flower painting 1600-1720, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 1-27).
The impressive level of naturalism in this picture invites prolonged examination and contemplation, prompting further questions over its possible meaning and associations for contemporary viewers. Careful observation reveals that the beautiful arrangement is already fading: roses crumbling under the weight of their own petals, leaves punctured by the insects that populate the image, and fruit, either so ripe they burst open - like the fig, or showing early signs of decay. These elements would have been understood as traditional vanitas symbols, a commentary on the transience of all worldly goods. The artist’s supreme skill in recreating the actual colours and textures of the various flowers would have greatly impressed the contemporary viewer during a period when the study of nature was intensifying in anticipation of modern scientific observation (see A. Wheelock, From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art, Washington, 1999). Perhaps most importantly, this still life asserts the ability of painting to outlast the flowers themselves, invoking the aphorism attributed to Hippocrates ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’ or ‘Art is long, life is short’, a concept that deeply informed the appreciation of still-life painting in seventeenth-century Holland (A. Chong and W. Kloek, Still-life painting from the Netherlands, 1550-1720, Zwolle, 1999, p. 14).
Identified as early as 1770 in the collection of the imperial court official François Ignace de Dufresne, this painting was then sold at the sale of Nicolaas Nieuhoff, whose impressive collection included such masterpieces as Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art).