Tulips, roses, jonquils, carnations, fritillaries and a single blue iris are massed into a Chinese vase; costly flowers in a costly container. Above them all, Madonna lilies rise like shining white trumpets at the peak of the bouquet, made slightly less regal by the tiny beetle making its way up a spotless petal. Other insects play hide-and-seek in the shadows made by leaves.
The picture was probably made to impress one of the wealthy burghers of Middelburg, the prosperous town where the artist lived. Such a person would have had an interest in, even a passion for, the many exotic plants being grown in the town’s new botanical gardens. So Bosschaert’s work is more than a lovely picture. He shows individual specimens of great value and scientific interest, and the buyer and their guests would have had their magnifying glasses out to indulge themselves in the ’science of looking'.
The stillness and sharp outlines of these magnificent flowers make them look almost artificial – and that’s exactly what this arrangement is, a magnificent piece of artifice. These flowers don’t come into bloom at the same time of the year, so the arrangement wouldn’t have been possible in the days before forced flowering and refrigeration.
Ambrosius Bosschaert would have made drawings and preliminary sketches of each flower and placed them into the picture as he worked. These specimens would not have been cut and shown in a vase; they would have remained in the ground for breeding or for an elegant garden display. This painting was meant to last, for a wealthy collector and connoisseur to admire long after the flowers had gone. The petals have a brilliant sheen, their jewel-like colours against the dark wall almost too bright to be taken as real. Bosschaert worked on a copper support to allow the smoother application of paint than on canvas, enabling him to show intricate detail. He used layers of glazes to produce a brilliance that has remained virtually without fading for over 400 years.
The light gives equal value to each bloom and each bloom is painted with equal precision; they are displayed with little overlap so that they can be appreciated individually. A few smaller blossoms are hidden in the shadowy foliage and, along with the dark background, give the bouquet form and depth. This design shows the exotic blooms, which had been discovered and brought into the Dutch Republic from the East, to advantage. Four yellow tulips streaked with red ‘flames’ are placed in a cross shape as a basis for the whole balanced structure. At the time, tulips were the focus of an extraordinary phenomenon – tulip mania – when a single bulb changed hands for the equivalent of thousands of pounds. The most valued were the red-stained blooms we see in this picture, once thought to be the product of the horticultural skills of Dutch gardeners but actually the result of a condition known as ‘tulip breaking virus’.
Around the precious tulips – and only a little less costly and still exotic – roses, jonquils, carnations, fritillaries and a single blue iris are carefully placed into the vase. Above them all, at the peak of the bouquet, Madonna lilies rise like shining white trumpets (a tiny beetle making its way up the spotless petal perhaps makes them a touch less regal). Apple blossom, fallen from the vase, and the Red Admiral butterfly nearby capture our attention: perhaps they suggest that the breeding of exotic wonders began from such humble flowers, and was made possible with the help of living creatures.
These aren‘t the only insects hiding among the leaves. A translucent brown butterfly perches behind the mop head of a pink carnation. A bee crawls into the mouth of a narcissus, in search of nectar. A caterpillar wriggles along the stem of a tulip, weighing it down, and a dragonfly with gauzy wings rests on the broad leaf of a cyclamen. Many seventeenth-century Dutch flower painters put these creatures into the painting, aware that they were representative of a huge upsurge of interest in the natural sciences.
Bosschaert was no exception: he knew his market. The picture was probably made to impress one of the wealthy burghers of Middlesburg, the prosperous town where he lived. Such a person would have had an interest in, even a passion for, the many exotic plants being grown in the town’s new botanical gardens. To us, the shells are decorative, but to Bosschaert’s client they would have been highly treasured curiosities. The insects would have been closely examined by the collector – and probably the artist himself – under one of the newly invented microscopes or other lenses becoming available in the Dutch Republic.
The blue-and-white porcelain vase in which Bosschaert has placed his flowers – its delicate bird poised as if waiting to pounce on the hidden insects – was itself a rare and expensive object, and a work of art: a picture within a picture. Made in China during the reign of the emperor Wanli (1573–1620) at the end of the Ming dynasty, such blue-and-white porcelain was imported into the Dutch Republic where it fetched enormous prices at auction. It proved so popular that it led to the establishment of the Delft factories, where ceramics were made that are still sought after today.
Successful artist though he was, it’s perhaps unlikely that Bosschaert was able to buy such an expensive treasure as the vase he portrays here. His brother-in-law and student, Balthasar Van der Ast, painted a picture featuring a similarly shaped vase – Flowers in a Wanli Vase (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen). Did the two artists each own a vase, share the same one, or did they simply visit an owner and make sketches that, like the flowers, were also added into the pictures as they worked? The latter is perhaps more likely. However tempting it is to picture the brothers-in-law working in the same studio on opposite sides of one vase, it’s unlikely: Van der Ast’s painting is probably of a slightly later date.
Bosschaert’s image – his flowers of great value and scientific interest – was more than a lovely picture: it was instructive and entertaining. It gave its owner and their guests the opportunity to demonstrate their sophisticated taste, and their knowledge and appreciation of the rare objects portrayed. And they would have had their magnifying glasses out to indulge themselves in the ’science of looking’.
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