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 Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg ?1593/4-1657 Delft), Grapes and other fruit in a basket, cherries and a peach on a Delft plate, tulips, irises and other flowers in a Wan-li vase, shells, and other fruit on a stone table, with parrots. Estimate $1,200,000 – $1,600,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

signed ‘• B• vander • ast ••’ (lower center, on the ledge), oil on oak panel, 29½ x 42 1/8 in. (75 x 107 cm.)

Provenance: The Reverend J.Willemsen, Middelburg, 1780.
Kalbfleisch, Flushing; S. Westerman, Amsterdam by 1935.
Mrs. I. Heitmanek-Engeling, Zürich.
with Alexander Galleries, London, 1977.

Literature: ‘Die Weltkunst’, IX, no. 27/28 and X, p. 50.
‘Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant’, 29 June 1935.
‘De Zakenwereld’, Amsterdam, 1935, no. 14.
Apollo Magazine, May 1955, LXI, p. 132.
L.J. Bol, ‘The Bosschaert Dynasty, Leigh-on-Sea, 1980, no. 117, pp. 85-86.
J. Briels, Vlaamse schilders en de dageraad van Hollands Gouden Eeuw, 1585-1630, Antwerp, 1997, no. 417, p. 260.

Exhibited: Amsterdam, Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Bloemstukken, 1935, no. 7.
London, Eugene Slatter, Dutch and Flemish Masters, April-July 1955, no. 13.
Amsterdam, Gebr. Douwes Fine Art, Old Master Paintings until 1805, 1995, no. 2.

Notes: This is one of Balthasar van der Ast’s largest works on panel, and was likely painted as a showpiece: a virtuoso demonstration of his talents that would have been set up in his studio to demonstrate the range of his artistic repertoire. Visiting clients would have had the option of selecting one or more elements from the composition, which thus functioned as a visual menu of sorts. The price of their acquisition would have been determined by the number of still-life details included, as well as by the painting’s scale. Van der Ast’s choice of subjects for this masterpiece reflects the popular fascination with exoticism, fueled by Holland’s thriving trade with far-reaching lands, particularly through the newly formed Dutch East India Company.

This interest in international commerce and exploration was complimented at home by a growing obsession with horticulture, resulting in the creation of gardens showcasing a variety of rare specimens and so serving as a kind of living Kunstkammer. Among the most desirable of buds was the tulip, and accordingly Van der Ast often included them in his paintings. Here, four stems with variegated petals appear in the vase at right. An example of highly coveted Wan-Li porcelain, the vessel also contains roses, lily of the valley and a single blue iris, with a French marigold set behind it on the table. This floral arrangement could easily stand on its own as a ‘flower pot’ still-life (blompot), as revealed by several similar compositions produced by Van der Ast, such as his nearly contemporary Flowers in a Vase with Shells and Insects in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG6593).

Like rare flowers, exotic seashells were highly sought-out in 17th-century Holland and vast prices were paid by collectors for the finest specimens. Several of the shells in the present work can be identified, including the West Indian Top (Cittarium Pica) with a hermit crab inside, the Orange Spotted Miter (Mitra Mitra) and the Golden Cone (Conus Aurantius) or possibly Magus Cone (Conus Magus). Van der Ast also includes a Marble Cone (Conus Marmoreus), a shell favored by Dutch Baroque painters, most notably Rembrandt who famously immortalized a specimen in an etching of 1650. Collecting shells, like tulip bulbs, was a speculative endeavor, and those who indulged were sometimes mocked as ‘shell-fools’ (schelpenzotten). The satirist Roemer Visscher included a depiction of shells in his popular book of emblems Sinnepoppen (1614), with the epigram: “It is odd how a fool will spend his money”. Consequently, shells in still-lifes have traditionally been interpreted as symbols of vanity and of the transience of earthly beauty and possessions.

Teeming with an abundance of ripe fruit, the basket at center may possess similar connotations pertaining to the briefness of life. Before long, the grapes now plump with juice and the golden-fleshed stone fruit will rot; already spots blemish a quince and some apples, while the grape leaves have begun to brown and wilt. A comparable reading can be applied to the clusters of fruit carefully arranged across the stone table top, including a melon, pears, red currants and cherries. The latter are piled high at left on a Delft plate, the blue and white pattern of which echoes that of the Wan Li vase at right. Through this visual play, Van der Ast may have been paying homage to Delft’s resourcefulness in responding to Chinese export porcelain by producing its own form of blue and white pottery, which became a source of national pride and wealth.

Adding yet another note of luxury to the composition are the parrots, which were kept as curiosities by wealthy families in 17th-century Holland. The birds’ brilliant plumage, ranging from butter yellow to scarlet, reveals Van der Ast’s talents as a colorist, as does the subtlety with which the artist handles variations in the tonality of the fruit’s skin. The artist’s treatment of light, too, speaks of his commitment as a Dutch artist to celebrating the visible world. Among the most notable passages of the composition in this respect are the seashells that cast deep shadows while their glossy surfaces are bathed in radiant light, and the basket of fruit masterfully illuminated to varying degrees.

Christie’s. OLD MASTER PAINTINGS PART I, 28 January 2015, New York, Rockefeller Plaza