Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (Antwerp 1573 – 1621 The Hague), Still Life of Variegated Tulips, Roses, a Hyacinth, a Primrose, a Violet, Forget-me-nots, a Columbine, Lily of the Valley, a Cyclamen, a Marigold and a Carnation All in a Glass Vase, with a Butterfly and Housefly. Estimate 3,000,000 — 4,000,000 USD. Photo Sotheby’s
signed in monogram and dated lower left 16 AB (in ligature) 0[6 or 8, see note], oil on copper, 8 1/4 by 6 3/4 in., 21 by 17.2 cm.
PROVENANCE: Schaeffer Galleries, New York (by 1944)
Mrs. Edward F. Hutton, Westbury, New York
Sotheby’s, London, June 24, 1964, Lot 42 (sold by the above)
The Hallsborough Gallery, London (acquired from the above sale for £12,500 [$35,000])
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (acquired from the above, through Paul Brame, Paris, in April 1965)
EXPOSITION: London, The Hallsborough Gallery, From Butinone to Chagall: Fine Paintings and Drawings of Six Centuries, May – July 1965, cat. no. 7, illustrated (as dated 1606)
LITTERATURE: Apollo, May 1965, p. xlv, advertisement, illustrated (as dated 1606)
P. Mitchell, European Flower Painters, London, 1973, p. 57 (as dated 1606)
I. Bergström, “Composition in Flower Pieces of 1605-1609 by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder,” in Tableau 5, no. 2, November – December, 1982, fig. 3, p. 176, illustrated (as dated 1606)
L. Tongiorgi Tomasi, An Oak Spring Flora, Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time, A Selection of the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Works of Art in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon, Upperville, 1997, cat. no. 22, p. 97, illustrated and pp. 95-98 (as dated 1606)
Notes: As early as 1522, the Dutch interest in flowers and in flower painting was remarked upon by no less a figure than the great humanist Erasmus who, in his Convivium Religiosum noted that:
« …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.”
Erasmus would have been referring to flowers that appeared as part of a larger composition, because still life painting as an independent form only truly developed nearly a century later. It finally coalesced in the Low Countries just after 1600, erupting almost simultaneously in Antwerp, Middelburg, The Hague and Amsterdam. No doubt encouraged by the new and exotic flora being introduced into Europe by international trade, the genre would continue to develop throughout the century and into the next, with Netherlandish artists leading the way.
The Mellon still life is one of the earliest examples of the genre. Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, along with Jan Brueghel the Elder, Roelandt Savery and Jacques de Gheyn, was amongst the key innovators in this new area of specialization. His first dated flower piece is from 1605, although it would seem likely that he had started to paint them before this date, as his earliest still lifes show an already accomplished and sophisticated hand at work. Originally from Antwerp, Bosschaert’s family re-located in the late 1580s to Middelburg, the prosperous capital city of the Province of Zeeland. Middelburg was famed for its botanical gardens, which contained numerous examples of exotic flowers and trees. The town doctor, Mattias de L’Obel, was the author of one of the most important herbals of the period, and his colleague Pelletier, who owned one of the most famous gardens, published the first account of the flora of Zeeland, listing eighteen hundred plants.1 It seems likely that Bosschaert received his first still life commissions from Middelburg botanists and plant enthusiasts eager to visually document a variety of floral species. Certainly the depiction of numerous exotica in his compositions suggests his involvement with Middelburg’s circle of plant connoisseurs and his knowledge of their gardens.2
The flowers depicted in the present work, though common today, were rare in the early 17th century and highly coveted. Tulips, especially, were passionately collected and traded, with some of the more elaborate varieties going for astronomical prices. Probably first sent to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in 1554, by the late 16th century the tulip was already in high demand. Indeed, the higly speculative « tulipmania » bubble did not burst until 1637. With their intense and saturated colors, tulips were unlike any flowers known to Netherlandish horticulturalists of that period. Variegated tulips, with their delicately feathered patterns, were especially favored. Here Bosschaert has depicted two examples, one white with contrasting red markings and the other yellow with red, and has silhouetted them against the dark background so as to best display their shapes and colors. He has combined them with other specimens that he favored and used repeatedly in his compositions such as pink roses, columbine, hyacinth and pink cyclamen with its beautiful variegated leaves. Though not symmetrical, the bouquet is nonetheless balanced, with the tulip projecting out on the right side counterbalanced by the curved wings of the butterfly poised on the rose at left. The combination of these flowers is, of course, a fantasy and could not occur in nature as some are early spring bloomers and others appear much later in the season. Bosschaert’s astonishing precision and technical virtuosity is enhanced by use of a copper support, which gives the oil pigment an enamel-like quality, enhancing the luminous effects of his brushwork.3
The early phase of Bosschaert’s career, before circa 1610, shows a remarkably rapid development within a short period of time. In his earliest dated work, from 1605, he fills the entire picture plane with blooms almost to the edges of the copper plate and sprigs of flowers cover the ledge, as well.4 Within the bouquet, there is little space between the various floral components and the overall composition appears flat. In an attempt to create a greater sense of depth, he depicts some of the blooms facing forward and others facing away with their stems clearly visible, but this device is not yet totally successful. Another still life from just one year later, dated 1606, in the Cleveland Museum of Art (fig. 1), depicts a still rather tightly composed bouquet, but the flowers have more space around them and there is greater clarity in the overall arrangement. In a still life from circa 1607 (fig. 2), the artist uses compositional elements that are similar to those in the present work: a strong central variegated tulip, a marigold below, and a butterfly balanced on a rose. However, although there is more room between the flowers, they still seem rather crowded into the picture plane. By contrast, the Mellon still life marks a major step towards a more mature style. Bosschaert creates more space both around and between the flowers within the bouquet, giving a greater sense of depth. He has also now mastered the motif of depicting some flowers facing forward while others, such as the carnation at left, face away and seamlessly integrated it into the composition. The red and white variegated tulip is clearly emphasized as the topmost flower and there is overall more shape and balance in the arrangement.
Flowers in a Glass, 1606 (oil on copper) , Bosschaert, Ambrosius the Elder (1573-1621) / Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA / Gift of Carrie Moss Halle in memory of Salmon Portland Halle / Bridgeman Images
Still life of flowers in a glass vase, signed in monogram lower right, oil on copper,
16.5 by 11.6 cm, painted circa 1607, in a private collection
foto collectie rkd
The sophistication and elegance of the Mellon picture has in fact given rise to discussion of the painting’s chronology within the context of Bosschaert’s impressive stylistic development. The 1964 auction catalogue and later commentators read the last digit of the date on the present work as a “6.” However, Fred G. Meijer believes it was probably originally an “8” and was altered at some point in the painting’s history.5 The shape of the second “6” deviates significantly from the first “6” of the date, and the painting itself would seem to fit more satisfactorily into a slightly later period when Bosschaert’s artistic vision had been more fully developed.
Ultimately, Bosschaert’s floral still lifes are much more than a scientifically precise depiction of rare and precious flowers. They were painted to delight the eye, bringing beauty and sensual pleasure all year round. As his contemporary Jan Brueghel the Elder wrote, in a letter written in August 1606, to Cardinal Borromeo in Milan regarding one of his own flower paintings: “it will be a fine sight in the winter.”
1. A. Goldgar, Tulipmania: money, honor, and knowledge in the Dutch golden age, Chicago 2007, p. 26
2. Ibid., p. 27
3. A. Chong and W. Kloek, Still-Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam and Cleveland 1999, p. 117
4. Private collection; see S. Segal et al, in The Masters of Middelburg, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam 1984, pp. 120-1, illustrated
5. Private communication dated July 30, 2014
Sotheby’s. Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Masterworks.New York | 10 nov. 2014, 07:00 PM