Discovery of a master piece by Abraham Bosschaert the Elder

The discovery of this unpublished panel constitutes a major input into the corpus of Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, of which only some sixty paintings, only bouquets in vases, have come to us. Seven of them other than this one distinguish themselves by an atmospheric landscape in the back instead of the traditional black background. Large watercourses, solitary towers invite the viewer’s eye to walk through them. Characterised by a great botanical variety and an admirable pictorial delicacy, admired for the vivacity of their colours, they belong to the artist’s last period, between 1619 and 1621. Six of those bouquets are located within an open window and under a semi-circular arch. The latter are listed below:

  • Paris, Louvre museum (23.5 x 17,5 cm, on copper, inv. RF 1984150)
  • La Haye, Mauritshuis (64 x 46 cm, on panel, inv. 679)
  • Boston, Museum of Arts (RoseMarie et Eijk van Otterloo collection, 28 x 22.9 cm, on copper)
  • Private collection (Christie's, London, 9th of December 1994, lot n° 5, 31.4 x 22.8 cm, on panel)
  • Private collection (Sotheby's, London, 10th of July 2002, lot n° 15, 28 x 23.5 cm, on copper)
  • Private collection (Tefaf Maastricht, Johnny van Haeften, 2011, 29 x 23 cm, on copper)

The seventh one, until now the only painting of our artist depicting a vase on an entablature behind an open sky was known, housed in the County Museum of Arts of Los Angeles (donation Mr and Mrs Edward Carter M.2003.188.7, 28 x 23 cm). As well dominated by a yellow iris and two great tulips, it possesses an identic composition and botany to the one we are presenting. The setting of the flowers and the Römer vase are quite alike. Several insects appear in the Californian painting, only one butterfly is laid on the parapet of our panel. Bosschaert likes to display in a subtle manner thin drops of dew on the leaves and here, behind the vase.

Such as the other still-lives of the period, his bouquets constitute a mixture of flowers of different seasons, without carrying about their blossoming date, made from studies of individual flowers. A close observation of the world and the accuracy of details lead to a naturalism in which every element conveys a symbolic or religious value. The butterfly, prime example of an ephemeral animal, refers to the fragility of our existence. Flowers are beautiful only for a moment. Perishable, they fade away and die rapidly and some leaves are already pricked. The yellow iris arises and dominates the tulips, which bulbs are collected in the Netherlands and make the pride and fortune of the country. Its shape evokes the one of the sword that spiked the Madonna whose universal love is also suggested by the spineless rose. The lily of the valley, through its delicate perfume and bending movement of devotion, illustrates Mary’s humility. Aquilegia, one of the seven flowers of her garden, evokes the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The cyclamen is also a flower referring to the Madonna. Forget-Me-Nots, heavenly flowers, remind the salvation of the soul that stays faithful to God; carnations, the Passion of the Christ.

The realistic description of nature contrasts with the shading blueish of the background creating a poetic enchantment which echoes the link between microcosm and macrocosm; that is to say simple and everyday things resonate with the vastness of the Universe, and of the divine.

Ambrosius Bosschaert was rediscovered during the 20th century thanks to the work of Laurent J. Bol. Born in Antwerp in a protestant sphere, he leaves his birth city in order to escape the religious persecutions. He goes further North with his family, to Middlebourg, where he becomes a member of the Saint Luke guild in 1594. Later on, he settles in Bergen-op-Zoom, then in Utrecht in 1615 and in Breda in 1619. He dies in The Hague in 1621 while working on a flower painting commissioned by the prince of Orange, Maurice de Nassau. His three sons continued his style. His brother-in-law Balthasar van der Ast (1593/4 - 1657), copied during his youth this type of compositions, with a landscape in the background, without getting to the same refinement, as shows the small copper of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts signed of 1624 (donation of Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, 2017).

We are grateful to Professor Fred Meijer for confirming the painting’s attribution based on a numeric photograph by an email of the 27th of March 2019.

The flower still-life starts

Bosschaert is one of the pioneers of the history of still-life and the first painter who dedicated himself to flower bouquets only. In the field of illuminations, in the North of Europe, a tradition of floral margins already existed and was especially common in Flanders, in particular in books of hours. During the 15th century, bouquets of flowers appear timidly among religious scenes and portraits and are sometimes isolated like the one on the back of a diptych by Hans Memling (v. 1485, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Then, they get developed by the Westphalian painter Ludger Tom Ring the Younger whose vases of flowers are sometimes descripted in a niche (Munster, Westfälisches Landesmuseum, 1565). On this topic, see the recent publication of David Ekserdjian, Still life before still life (Yale University Press, 2018).

Initially limited to natural sciences publications, etchings representing flowers become more aesthetic around 1580. Print collections engender a growing interest towards a precise model of bouquet: different kinds of flowers put together in a narrow vase and rigorously arranged (etchings by Hendrick Hondius after Elias Verulst, 1599; Claesz Jan Visscher after Adriaen Collaert).

Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruits (Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, c. 1596-1598) and Sandez-Cotan’s bodegones (c. 1602) constitute an important step in the emergence of still-life painting in Europe as an independent genre. In Prague, at the court of Rudolf II, a renewal of interest for Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer pushes some artists to change their view on nature and botany. A vivid enthusiasm for the vegetal appears, just like Giuseppe Arcimboldo composes his human figures of fruits and plants. Roelandt Savery, Joris Hoefnagel and Jan Brueghel the Elder create the first painted bouquets.

Roelandt Savery dates of 1603 the first that has come to us (Utrecht, Centraal Museum) and those of Brueghel are staggered between 1608 and 1620. The decades 1600 and 1610 are fundamental in the development of this theme. While having a timeless subject, our painting belongs to this precise moment of Western art history. Bosschaert is the first one to place flowers in front of a landscape. Thanks to his masterpieces he gave Holland the premises of a floral production that can compete with the Antwerpen masters and will develop over the century, from the school he creates in Middleburg until the great abundant bouquets of the end of the century (Van Huysum, Ruysch, Mignon…).