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Jan van Huysum's 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase'

Audio description

8 min 23 sec | June 2021
Listen to an audio description of Jan van Huysum's 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase'

This is a detailed visual description of the painting 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase' by the 18th-century Dutch painter, Jan van Huysum. It will take about 8 minutes to listen to and includes information about the artist and how he made the work.

The large, portrait-orientated oil painting is almost a metre wide and a metre and half tall. It is a still life, featuring a lavish arrangement of flowers in a generous vase. The flowers are painted in microscopic detail. The painting is tightly cropped at the edges of the floral composition, so the subject fills the canvas, appearing larger than life. The vase rests on a plinth with fruit and flowers arranged around its base. Butterflies and insects fly or crawl amongst the display and there are shining droplets of water on some petals and leaves. The painting is designed to dazzle; and it does. There are over thirty different species of flower including roses, peonies and poppies. It takes time to identify each one and this is part of the picture’s purpose. Van Huysum achieves a celebration of nature, an entertaining puzzle and a display of wealth, culture and fashion.

The vase is within a niche in a wall that could have housed a classical sculpture. It is painted from below, the arrangement towering above us. The niche has straight sides and a curved top, like a gentle hill. It is suggested by a shadowy border of about five centimetres which encloses the image. The interior is painted a pale yellowy brown which forms a neutral background. Light pours in from the left making the niche darker on one side and casting shadows to the right of fruit and foliage at the base of the plinth. The shape of the niche is echoed by the painting’s frame which is broad and golden, decorated with trailing vegetation and flowers in high relief.

During his working life, van Huysum was famous and his artwork highly collectible. His flower paintings were bought by the rich and famous across Europe. In the Dutch Republic, horticulture was a subject of national pride. This may seem like a haphazard arrangement but each flower has been carefully selected and some are rare and very expensive. The specimens could not have all been in bloom at the same time – it is a fantasy arrangement. It’s possible he painted the picture in two stages since two dates – 1736 and 1737 – are given on the plinth with his signature. But it is likely some of the composition was painted from drawings he made in plant nurseries in Haarlem and in Amsterdam where he lived.

The lower half of the painting is rooted by the rectangular plinth which is pale brown marble and has two tiers. The vase is a vivid orange terracotta, that speaks of the Italian sun. It has a circular base, a wide neck and a U-shaped bowl with a broad lip. It is decorated in relief and despite the plant life spilling over, it is possible to enjoy two chubby cherubs on the front. One, kneeling on the left, with their bare back to us, has stolen some flowers. They glance around to a friend sitting on the right who has a tiny bird perched on their finger.

On the left of the plinth is a bunch of black grapes draped over two ripe peaches that are still attached to their stalk. On top of the grapes a Greater White butterfly stretches its wings. One peach hangs invitingly in front of the plinth. Beside it is the artist’s signature which appears to be engraved into the marble. To the right of this lie pieces of a cracked walnut and a chaffinch’s nest, propped up to display the five small eggs inside, which are white with brown speckles.

Curling away from the nest, a spray of blousy pink roses reaches the opposite end of the plinth. Caught behind them are a large bunch of white grapes - translucent green in colour, some turning yellow. Above them, a pair of red and white carnations with their serrated petals tilted down. Creeping from behind the vase on both sides are trumpet-shaped bright blue morning glories, a reddish auricula and an orange nasturtium. Perched below the cherubs a Red Admiral butterfly, spreads its wings and a large blue bottle fly has alighted on the plinth. Here the painting is alive with quivering insects, soft blossoms and glossy fruit evoking the senses of touch, smell and taste.

The bouquet is ordered in a loose pyramid shape. The left side of the arrangement features a pair of double poppies, like puffballs, with tightly packed petals. One, a lilac opium poppy, droops over the vase. The other, a vibrant red, stands prominently on a winding stalk at the top, crowning the composition. It has a small white butterfly on it. Both poppies have curling grey-green leaves with jagged lobes. Resting on the lip of the vase is a frilly, pink peony with a tiny, yellow, meadow ant on it. Above that, a white rose hosts a second ant. Jutting sideways are a pair of hyacinths, one white, one blue. A Painted Lady butterfly has alighted on the white bloom in profile, showing off a black and orange wing. Above this there are different varieties of narcissi like yellow stars.

The right of the bouquet shows off a pair of striking baguette tulips. They have silky white petals with crimson stripes and are side on to us, their petals splayed. The Dutch began cultivating tulips in the 1500s. In the 1630s they were so prized that tulip bulb futures featured on the Dutch stock market. At the top of arrangement are some lush, pale-yellow hollyhocks, and in the centre, a vivid, dark blue iris, its petals draped like flags. Thrusting out to the side are pale pink and white apple blossom, and a French marigold. Lower down, a showy, red peony and a yellow cabbage rose.

Van Huysum was born in Amsterdam in 1682. He was trained by his father, who was also a still life painter, and his first dated work is 1706. Although he specialised in floral paintings he also painted landscapes. The artist was intensely secretive about his working methods (barely letting anyone into his studio). But we do know that he used very delicate brushes and layers of thin oil glaze to achieve the level of artistic detail for which his work is prized. 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase' depicts a rich man’s bouquet made to look winsome and natural; but in reality is a carefully orchestrated design. It displays not only a passion for flowers, but an immense knowledge and understanding of them.