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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Jan Davidsz de Heem/Vase of Flowers/c. 1660,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/46097 (accessed October 24, 2014).

 

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Overview

The Dutch and Flemish took extraordinary delight in depictions of the natural world as an expression of God’s everlasting blessing. The flower paintings of Jan Davidsz de Heem celebrate the beauty of flora while at the same time exemplifying the concept of Ars longa, vita brevis  (art is long, life is short) embodied in the Dutch still-life paintings of the seventeenth century. De Heem’s paintings also reflected the great interest in botany at that time, and this work includes exotic flowers and plants brought back from faraway places, such as the tulip, originally imported into Europe from Turkey in the 1550s.

De Heem was one of the most gifted, versatile, and influential still-life artists of his age. His refined technique allowed him to portray a great variety of textures that captured the very essence of the objects, including the petals of exotic flowers; long bent reeds of wheat; minute creatures such as butterflies, ants, snails, and caterpillars; and finally, the reflective surfaces of glass. In this work, De Heem creates a harmonious arrangement by balancing the colors and shapes of thirty-one types of flowers, vegetables, and grains. Despite the illusion of reality, this bouquet could have never actually existed, as the various flowers would have bloomed in different seasons. De Heem often included specific animals and flowers in his work for their symbolic meanings. Representing darkness and decay, a salamander stares hungrily at a spider, while a snail, a moth, and some ants crawl on the marble shelf. The memento mori (rememeber that you will die) images are counterbalanced by the wheat stalks symbolizing the Eucharist, and by the caterpillar and butterfly on the white poppy, which evoke redemption and resurrection.

Entry

The extraordinary delight the Dutch and Flemish took in the richness of the visual world is nowhere better expressed than in the flower paintings of Jan Davidsz de Heem. In his Vase of Flowers, the brightly colored blossoms, fruits, vegetables, and grains that seem to burst forth from the glass vase are painted with such sensitivity that they seem almost alive. Whether it be in the translucency of the petals, the sheen of dew drops on the leaves, or the minute insects that crawl about the stems and blossoms, De Heem has exerted painstaking care to capture the very essence of the still-life elements that make up his composition.

Other still-life painters shared De Heem’s concern with illusionism, yet none matched his ability to convey a sense of organic life. Poppies, tulips, roses, wheat, and peas reach out in dynamic rhythms, while insects crawl and flutter about as though the air around them were rife with the varied smells of the richly laden bouquet. Through his artifice, De Heem has allowed the viewer not only to enjoy the beauty of the individual forms but also to imagine the richness of their fragrances. He has done so, moreover, with an arrangement of flowers, fruits, and vegetables that would never have been placed together in the same bouquet, for they grow at different seasons of the year.

While De Heem’s ability to seize the full range of one’s sensual experiences in appreciating flowers is exceptional, the underlying attitude in his work reflects concerns that had been fundamental to still-life painting since the early seventeenth century. Cardinal Borromeo, the patron of Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 - 1625), for example, wrote of the pleasure he received from viewing the artist’s flowers during icy winters and imagining their odors.[1] In 1646 a Dutch poet, Joachim Oudaan, described not only the beauty of the blossoms but also the fragrance of a still-life painting.[2] De Heem’s dynamic yet harmonious composition belongs to a long-standing tradition. In the early seventeenth century, Ambrosius Bosschaert (Dutch, 1573 - 1621) painted symmetrically arranged bouquets of flowers that were dominated by a large, centrally placed blossom. Stems of flowers were relatively short and flowers did not overlap. De Heem’s work has evolved from this fairly rigid format—he breaks the symmetry, overlaps his blossoms, and, in particular, creates rhythms through his greatly elongated plant stems.

Finally, as did his predecessors, De Heem includes many types of flowers from different seasons of the year. Such artfully constructed compilations of elements that could never be seen together in nature gave still-life painting a status it could never have achieved if the artist had remained servile to the specifics of the natural world. Such a composition as this, while built upon careful observation of God’s wonders, emphasized the importance of the role of the artist’s imagination. The symbolic associations De Heem brought to the work confirm that such a still life was far more than a mere display of craft. The transient beauty of flowers, for example, was a common metaphor used to remind the viewer of the temporality of life. The bugs and snails that climb about the blossoms were understood allegorically to represent forces that help hasten the demise of temporal beauty. While De Heem clearly wished to convey this concept, by including such a wide range of seasons he also sought to make a statement about the value of art. These flowers will continue to blossom after nature’s flowers have withered and died. Indeed, the concept Ars longa, vita brevis was fundamental to seventeenth-century Northern still-life painting.

De Heem’s flower still lifes often had specific moral, and even religious, connotations. Occasionally this Catholic artist included a skull and the words memento mori adjacent to a flower piece [fig. 1]; in other instances he added a crucifix. In such cases, careful analyses of the flowers and grains he has included in his composition indicate that they were chosen because of the religious symbolism associated with them.[3] The question then arises whether the flowers and other plants in paintings with no explicit symbols of death or resurrection still carry similar associations.[4] In the case of the National Gallery’s painting the answer is most certainly yes.

This bouquet was not only a compilation of the beauties of God’s creations, a statement of the value of art, and a reminder of the transience of life, but it also put forth the hope of salvation and resurrection. Although no crucifix appears in this work, the allusion to the cross in the reflection of the window on the glass vase serves the same purpose. Within such a context the prominent position of the white poppy upon which a butterfly alights has to be understood symbolically.[5] The poppy, which was associated with sleep and death, often alluded to the Passion of Christ, and the butterfly to the Resurrection. Other flowers, grains, fruits, and vegetables reinforce this message. The morning glory, for example, symbolizes the light of truth, for it opens at the break of day and closes in the evening. The bramble, believed to be the burning bush in which the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses, was associated with divine love that cannot be consumed. Grains of wheat can allude to the bread of the Last Supper, but they can also symbolize resurrection because the grain must fall to earth to regenerate. Like wheat, or peas, man must die and be buried before achieving eternal life.

Vase of Flowers is signed but not dated. Although De Heem’s chronology is not easy to reconstruct, he probably executed this painting in Utrecht around 1660.[6] The painting has more elaborate rhythms in its forms and a more complex iconography than does De Heem’s similar composition in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, also entitled Vase of Flowers, which is signed and dated 1654. However, it cannot date too much later than the Dresden painting from the mid-1650s [fig. 1], which contains many like elements, including a poppy at the top of the composition and the image of a cross in the reflection on the vase. In any event, the composition must have been known by Abraham Mignon (German, 1640 - 1679) in Utrecht, for after he joined De Heem’s workshop in 1669 he executed a Vase of Flowers that shares many similar elements.[7]         

The blue hyacinth seen in the upper left of De Heem’s Vase of Flowers is the one flower lacking in Mignon’s painting, and for good reason. As Fred Meijer has astutely observed, a cluster of flowers in this area—including the hyacinth, hollyhock, and auricula in the upper left, the red-and-white carnation in the lower left, and the pink rosebud in between—were not part of De Heem’s original composition. They were almost certainly added later by Jan van Huysum (Dutch, 1682 - 1749), probably because an early eighteenth-century owner wanted to have a fuller and denser composition. Meijer based his conclusion on the fact that virtually the same flowers appear in similar positions in Van Huysum’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit in a Niche, c. 1717, in the Speelman Collection [fig. 2].[8]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014

Inscription

lower left on parapet: J.D. De Heem f.

  • Inscription

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild [1808-1879], London; by inheritance to his son, Leopold de Rothschild [1845-1917]; by inheritance to his son, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild [1882-1942], Exbury, Hampshire; by inheritance to his son, Edmund Leopold de Rothschild [1916-2009], Exbury; sold 1947 to (Frank Partridge and Sons, London).[1] Mr. McIntosh, Bridge Allen, Scotland.[2] (William Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1958). (Fritz Nathan and Peter Nathan, Zurich, 1959); (Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York); purchased 17 May 1961 by NGA.

Exhibition History

1958
Exhibition of Fine Paintings and Drawings of Four Centuries, William Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1958.
1991
Jan Davidsz. de Heem en zijn kring, Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, 1991, no. 30.
1991
The Age of the Marvelous, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, New Hampshire; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 1991-1992, no. 157, repro.
1995
Dutch Cabinet Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1995-1996, no catalogue.
1998
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 25.
1999
From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, no. 16, fig. 55.
2006
De verleiding van Flora: Jan van Huysum 1682-1749 (The Temptations of Flora: Jan van Huysum 1682-1749), Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2006-2007, no. P4, repro., as _Flower Piece with White Opium Poppy and Peapods_.

Bibliography

1958
Bury, Adrian. "Fine Paintings and Drawings of Four Centuries at the William Hallsborough Galleries." The Connoisseur 141, no. 569 (May 1958): 175-177.
1958
Nicolson, Benedict. "Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions: London." The Burlington Magazine 100, no. 662 (May 1958): 186.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 198, repro.
1965
Pavière, Sydney H. Floral Art: Great Masters of Flower Painting. Leigh-on-Sea, 1965: 20, colorplate 7.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 66.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 58, no. 1649, repro.
1972
Nathan Fine Arts. Dr. Fritz Nathan und Dr. Peter Nathan, 1922-1972. Zürich, 1972: no. 10.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 172, repro.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 42, pl. 20.
1982
Segal, Sam. A Flowery Past: A Survey of Dutch and Flemish Flower Painting from 1600 until the Present. Exh. cat. Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam; Noordbrabants Museum, 's-Hertogenbosch. Mijdrecht, 1982: 12-25.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 306, no. 403, color repro.
1984
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1984: 18-19, color repro.
1985
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 199, repro.
1988
Grimm, Claus. Stilleben: Die niederländischen und deutschen Meister. Stuttgart, 1988: 143.
1989
Meijer, Fred G. Stillevens uit de Gouden Eeuw. Exh. cat. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1989: no. 23.
1989
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. "Still Life: Its Visual Appeal and Theoretical Status in the Seventeenth Century." In Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. and Ingvar Bergström. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Washington, 1989: 14-15.
1991
Segal, Sam. Jan Davidsz de Heem en zijn kring. Exh. cat. Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig. The Hague, 1991: no. 30.
1991
Segal, Sam. Jan Davidsz de Heem und sein Kreis. Exh. cat. Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig. Braunschweig, 1991: no. 30.
1991
The Age of the Marvelous. Exh. cat. Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, New Hampshire; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 1991-1992: 381, no. 157, repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 127, repro.
1995
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 103-106, color repro. 105.
1998
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 66, no. 25.
1999
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999: 61-63, no. 16, fig. 55.
2002
Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil painting. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2002: 84, fig. 6.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 190-191, no. 152, color repro.
2006
Segal, Sam, Mariël Ellens, and Joris Dik. De verleiding van Flora: Jan van Huysum, 1682-1749. Exh. cat. Museum het Prinsenhof, Delft; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Zwolle, 2006: 118-119, no. 4, repro.
2007
Meijer, F. G. "Exhibition Reviews: The 'Temptations of Flora': Jan van Huysum (1682-1749)." Burlington Magazine 149, no. 1247 (2007): 134-135.
2007
Segal, Sam. The Temptations of Flora: Jan van Huysum, 1682-1749. Translated by Beverly Jackson. Exh. cat. Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Zwolle, 2007: 118-119, no. 4, repro.
2012
Paul, Tanya, et al. Elegance and Refinement: The still-life paintings of Willem van Aelst. Exh. cat. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 2012: 42-43, fig. 7.

Technical Summary

The support, a medium-weight, plain-weave fabric with irregularly spun threads, has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Cusping is visible along all edges.Paint is applied over a thin, smooth off-white ground in thin, liquid layers blended wet-into-wet. Outer flowers are painted over the dark background, while the central bouquet is painted directly over the white ground. The red-and-white poppy is painted over a light green underlayer. Reserves were left for details when final glazes were applied. Thin glazes are slightly abraded. Small losses in the background have been inpainted. No major treatment has been carried out since acquisition.

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Vase of Flowers
  • Comparable Figure
    [fig. 1] Jan Davidsz de Heem, Memento Mori, c. 1653, oil on canvas, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Photo: Hans-Peter Klut
    Compare Image
  • Comparable Figure
    [fig. 2] Jan van Huysum, Still Life of Flowers and Fruit in a Niche, c. 1710–1715, oil on panel, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection, on long term loan to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts
    Compare Image
  • [1]

    See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Still Life: Its Visual Appeal and Theoretical Status in the Seventeenth-Century,” in Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection (Washington, DC, 1989), 14–15.

  • [2]

    See Lawrence Otto Goedde, “A Little World Made Cunningly: Dutch Still Life and Ekphrasis,” in Still Lifes of the Golden Age: Northern European Paintings from the Heinz Family Collection (Washington, DC, 1989), 40.

  • [3]

    For an analysis of the Flower Piece with Shell and Skull in Dresden, see Sam Segal and Liesbeth M. Helmus, Jan Davidsz. de Heem en zijn kring (Utrecht, 1991), no. 28, 181–184.

  • [4]

    For the identification of the plants and animals in this painting, see Sam Segal and Liesbeth M. Helmus, Jan Davidsz. de Heem en zijn kring (Utrecht, 1991), 187.

  • [5]

    Much has been written on the symbolism of flowers in Dutch art. For an excellent overview of the problem, see Sam Segal, “The Symbolic Meaning of Flowers,” in A Flowery Past: A Survey of Dutch and Flemish Flower Painting from 1600 until the Present (Amsterdam, 1982), 12–25; see also Sam Segal and Liesbeth M. Helmus, Jan Davidsz. de Heem en zijn kring (Utrecht, 1991), 182–184.

  • [6]

    For a similar De Heem composition, also undated, see E. U. Fechner, Hollandskii naturmort XVII weka (Moscow, 1981), 28, 169, pls. 62–63.

  • [7]

    For this painting, see Fred G. Meijer, Stillevens uit de Gouden Eeuw (Rotterdam, 1989), no. 23, 94–95.

  • [8]

    Fred G. Meijer, “The ‘Temptations of Flora’: Jan van Huysum (1682–1749),” Burlington Magazine 149, no. 1247 (2007): 134–135.