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This painting is a strange fiction: roses and tulips, lilac and snake’s head lilies, aren't all in bloom at the same time, so the artist would have made drawings and sketches of them at different times of the year, later incorporating them into the picture. Scientific exploration and discovery flourished in the Dutch Republic at this time. As in this painting, art and science often went hand in hand. Artists began to use the newly invented microscope to enable them to paint in accurate detail plants and insects – like the butterfly, the cricket and the wasp zooming down to the fallen rose petals.
What van der Ast paints is so realistic that the objects are almost tangible. In one way they are presented as scientific specimens, but in another as an unfading vision of nature that could never have existed in reality.
A pyramid of flowers in full bloom. The cool, clear light, so pale it might even be moonlight, makes each flower glow against the grey wall. Full-blown roses, carnations and a snake’s head lily, jostle with wallflowers, snapdragons and lilac. At the top a stately iris crowns the arrangement, a fragile butterfly perched on its furled petal.
But it’s the three tulips that rise on a diagonal line through the centre of the picture that were the prize blooms. When van der Ast painted them, they were hugely expensive. A flower painting such as his was treasured because they were beautiful decorative additions to a wealthy household, but also because they demonstrated the owner’s interest in science.
Scientific exploration and discovery flourished in the Dutch Republic at this time. As in this painting, art and science often went hand in hand. Artists began to use newly invented microscopes to enable them to paint plants, insects and small animals in accurate detail – to see the markings and curled feeler of the peacock butterfly, the armoured shell of the cricket and the delicate legs of the spider exploring the yellow primrose. The wasp seems to hover in the air before zooming down to the fallen rose petals.
The first tulips had been brought in from Turkey as great and desirable wonders. Within months, the Dutch Republic was in the middle of ‘tulip mania’. A single bulb could cost the equivalent of thousands of pounds in today’s money. Each nurseryman aimed to grow a more exotic specimen than his neighbour. Striped petals or unusual colours were especially sought after and the great ambition – unfulfilled at the time – was to grow a black tulip.
Roses and tulips, lilac and snake’s head lilies, aren‘t all in bloom at the same time, so van der Ast would have made sketches and drawings of them at different points in the year, later incorporating them into the picture. Nor would the flowers have been cut – they were far too costly. They would have been left to grow and produce more of their kind for the following year.
Almost as expensive as the flowers were exotic shells. Brought from far-flung eastern countries by the merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company, the three in the painting would have been fetched from the sea bed by young men wearing no equipment, often diving to great depths to find them. In reality, the shells are unlikely to have been left on a shelf as they appear in the picture, but would have been locked away in a ’cabinet of curiosities‘ and shown to appreciative guests.
So van der Ast’s picture is a strange fiction. What he paints is so realistic that the objects are almost tangible. In one way they’re presented as scientific specimens, but in another as a precious, unfading vision of nature that could never have existed in reality.
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