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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Balthasar van der Ast/Basket of Flowers/c. 1622,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed October 27, 2016).


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Thu Apr 24 00:00:00 EDT 2014 Version
Sun Jan 01 00:00:00 EST 1995 Version

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An inventory of 1632 confirms the presence of this rare set of pendant paintings by the still-life master Balthasar van der Ast in the collection of Princess Amalia van Solms, wife of Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange. The two works complement each other and reinforce the message that one should be grateful for the abundance and beauty of God’s creation. Both works feature a centrally placed wicker basket overflowing with a semicircular array of still-life objects, both natural and man-made, including fruit, flowers, shells, and exotic Wan-Li porcelain from China (referencing, respectively, the elements of earth, air, water, and fire).

Van der Ast was trained by his brother-in-law, the noted still-life painter Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573–1621). Like his mentor, Van der Ast created symmetrical compositions from meticulous preparatory drawings or watercolor studies made from life of blooming flowers, ripe fruits, and exotic shells—elements the artist was then able to combine, and recombine, in his paintings without needing to have the actual objects in front of him. Departing from his teacher’s penchant for crisp and vivid compositions, Van der Ast softened his contours, used more muted colors, and selectively highlighted the central core of his still lifes. He reinforced the dramatic effect by bringing his forms close to the picture plane and by compressing the space between the various elements. Van der Ast further enlivened the flower arrangement here with a dragonfly and a hermit crab emerging from its shell.


By the early 1630s, the Prince of Orange, Frederik Hendrik, and his wife, Amalia van Solms, had formed an important collection of contemporary Dutch and Flemish paintings. Their taste led them to collect mythological and allegorical paintings as well as princely portraits. The inventory of their possessions made in 1632 lists only four still lifes, two of which hung in a small room belonging to the princess that also contained two allegorical paintings attributed to Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640) and a portrait of Amalia van Solms by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669). As described in the inventory, the still lifes were “two small paintings in ebony frames, one a basket with fruit and the other a basket with flowers, by Van der Ast.”[1] These two paintings must be Basket of Fruits and Basket of Flowers, one of the rare sets of companion pieces created by this early seventeenth-century master.[2] While it is not known when or how Van der Ast’s paintings were acquired by Amalia van Solms, their existence in the princely collection indicates the esteem in which this artist was held by his contemporaries.[3]

Van der Ast was trained by his brother-in-law, Ambrosius Bosschaert (Dutch, 1573 - 1621), who taught him the fundamentals of painting, in particular the accurate depiction of flowers, fruits, shells, insects, baskets, and Chinese-export ceramics—all subjects of his paintings.[4] It was undoubtedly from Bosschaert that Van der Ast derived the idea of representing a symmetrically placed wicker basket filled with flowers and with shells scattered on the tabletop.[5] Bosschaert may also have taught him the technique of making preliminary drawings or watercolor studies of flowers, fruits, and shells to use as models that could be variously combined. The elegant red-and-white variegated tulip that hangs over the edge of the basket in Basket of Flowers, for example, can be found in a number of Van der Ast’s compositions.[6]

A clear difference, however, exists between the two artists. Whereas Bosschaert’s blossoms are crisp and their colors vivid, Van der Ast’s forms are softer, with diffuse contours and more muted colors, as in his Basket of Flowers. Light no longer plays evenly over the surface, but selectively highlights the central core of the composition, creating a more dynamic image than any comparable painting by Bosschaert. Van der Ast reinforces this effect by bringing his forms close to the picture plane and compressing the space between the various compositional elements. Finally, he adds variety to his scene, not only with the plethora of flowers in his basket, including tulips, roses, irises, fritillaria, columbine, an anemone, a hyacinth, a carnation, and a cyclamen leaf, but also with the rare and exotic shells and fruit that lie on the table. A dragonfly in the upper right and a hermit crab in the lower left further enliven the scene.

The same richness within a small scale is evident in the companion piece, Basket of Fruits. Plums, apples, apricots, three sorts of grapes, a Seville orange, and a quince are arranged in a wicker basket identical to that in Basket of Flowers. The table holds many of the same types of fruit as well as medlars and cherries. Two Wan-Li plates that Van der Ast has placed at a slant on each side of the basket add elegance and preciousness to the scene.

As pendants, the two works complement each other in a number of ways. Their compositions are virtually identical: a centrally located overflowing wicker basket with still-life elements grouped around it in a semicircular manner. The combination of fruit and flowers found in these two works creates a sense of appreciation for the abundance and beauty of God’s creation, a prevalent theme in early seventeenth-century still-life painting.[7] Van der Ast may have introduced the shells and the Wan-Li china for their exotic appeal, but their presence also allowed him to include all four of the natural elements: traditionally, fruit was associated with the earth, flowers with air, shells with water, and fine china with fire.

Van der Ast almost certainly created these works in the early 1620s. The soft, atmospheric character of his painting style reflects the influence of Roelandt Savery (Dutch, 1576 - 1639), who had also joined the Utrecht Saint Luke’s Guild in 1619. In the early 1620s Van der Ast painted a number of comparable compositions that feature the same elements. Sam Segal has noted that around 1623 the Batavian rose, visible here in the front of Basket of Flowers, was replaced in Van der Ast’s repertoire by the Provins rose, further confirmation for the early dating of these paintings.[8]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower left: .B.vander.ast...



Probably Princess Amalia van Solms [1602-1675], The Hague, by 1632.[1] (sale, Philippus van der Schley, Amsterdam, 16 February 1802 and days following, 1st day, no. 55 [with NGA 1992.51.1]); Levij Pakker.[2] Mrs. Beaumont, England; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 19 March 1906, no. 17 [with NGA 1992.51.1]); (Collings).[3] (Fritz Gerstel Gallery, Berlin); (his sale, Kunstsalon Keller & Reiner, Berlin, 21-22 January 1908, no. 36 [with NGA 1992.51.1]). (Kunsthandel Gebr. Douwes, Amsterdam), c. 1938; sold to Dr. Hans Wetzlar, Amsterdam, by 1952;[4] (his sale, Sotheby Mak van Waay, Amsterdam, 9 June 1977, no. 5 [with NGA 1992.51.1]); (John Mitchell & Son, London); sold November 1977 to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1992 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Jubileumtentoonstelling, Kunsthandel Gebr. Douwes, Amsterdam, 1955, no. 1.
La Nature Morte et son inspiration, Galerie André Weil, Paris, 1960, no. 2.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 3, repro.
From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, no. 2, fig. 35.
Friedländer, Max J. Collection Dr. H. Wetzlar. Amsterdam, 1952: 8, no. 3b, repro.
Bol, Laurens J. "Een Middelburgse Brueghel-groep." Oud Holland 70 (1955): 146, 153.
Kunsthandel Gebr. Douwes. Jubileumtentoonstelling, 1805-1955 . Amsterdam, 1955: no. 1.
Bol, Laurens J. The Bosschaert Dynasty: Painters of Flowers and Fruit. Translated by A.M. de Bruin-Cousins. Leigh-on-Sea, 1960: 38, 74, no. 38, pl. 39b, 102 n. 85.
Segal, Sam. Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries. Exh. cat. Nabio Museum of Art, Osaka; Tokyo Station Gallery; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Amstelveen and The Hague, 1990: 190, 191 n. 3 (where the reference to Bol 1960 gives an incorrect citation to "no. 32" that should be "no. 38").
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 5, 8, color repro. 7.
Spicer, Joaneath A., and Lynn Federle Orr. Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age. Exh. cat. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; National Gallery, London. New Haven, 1997: 362, fig. 1.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 65, no. 3, repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999: 46-47, 83; no. 2, fig. 35.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., and Michael Swicklik. "Behind the Veil: Restoration of a Dutch Marine Painting Offers a New Look at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art and History." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 37 (Fall 2007): 4, 5, fig. 6.
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: 39, fig. 2.
Technical Summary

The support, a single, horizontally grained wood board, has a slight concave warp. Thin wood strips, are attached to the edges on all four sides. The edges of the panel are beveled on the back. Paint is applied over an off-white ground in thin, opaque, and translucent layers with minimal brushmarking. Inpainting covers scattered minor losses. Abrasion is moderate throughout, particularly in the darks of the shells. No conservation has been carried out since acquisition.

Related IconClass Terms
Christian Religion
crustacean +used symbolically
still life of plants and flowers
patron +sovereign
artist +Roelandt Savery + influence of