Bouquet of Spring Flowers is an exceptionally handsome and lively work by one of the best-known and most important Dutch still-life artists, Jan van Huysum. Lauded for his dramatic use of color, the lushness of his flower arrangements, and the intricate organization of his compositions, Van Huysum was the master who carried the floral still-life tradition into the 18th century, continuing the grand manner of Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–1683/1684) and Willem van Aelst (1626–1683). Born into an Amsterdam family of flower painters, he was sought out by a wide circle of patrons, including the kings of Poland and Prussia, and his work was highly praised by his contemporaries and by art critics of his time.
Van Huysum was one of the few flower painters who was also a highly skilled draftsman. He produced many drawings and watercolors during his career, not only as compositional studies for his paintings but also as unique works of art. In contrast to the artist’s exquisitely detailed paintings, however, many of his drawings were sketched with great speed, giving the general colors and shapes of the blooms while glossing over specific botanic details.
The National Gallery has two very fine paintings by Van Huysum that show his typically grand presentation of a richly varied bouquet in a container set on a ledge or shelf, and with the acquisition of this watercolor, the Gallery now has a work that conveys the bravura spirit of the artist’s best drawings. While many of Van Huysum’s drawings were executed in black chalk and gray washes on a relatively small scale, it is the larger, full-color pieces such as this for which he is best known and most admired as a draftsman.
In the Gallery’s watercolor, the energetic execution gives the arrangement of flowers a deceptively accidental appearance, but the composition is in fact carefully structured to create sinuous arabesques of light, line, and color. With some of the blossoms represented by little more than splashes of watercolor and a couple of strokes of oiled charcoal, the work has a remarkably modern, abstract quality. Yet it is possible to identify certain flowers, many of which appear regularly in Van Huysum’s paintings: the crown imperial at the top, the red peony lying on the ledge, the two tulips, a white rose, a yellow cabbage rose, a spray of blue hyacinth, a whitish red poppy anemone, a branch of harebell, and a jonquil hybrid.
Like the majority of Van Huysum’s watercolors, this one was not made in preparation for any of his painted still lifes but was instead made as a finished work, signed by the artist and intended for sale to a collector. Although it bears no date, compositional similarities with some of Van Huysum’s dated paintings help to place it in the 1720s, a period that is also consistent with the bold freedom of the execution.
William Mayor (London, died 1874)(Lugt 2799 and 2639), probably acquired in 1842; with Hogarth, London, in 1875; Léon Suzor, Paris, until 1962; by inheritance to his nephew Didier Suzor, Paris, until 1975; probably by descent until 2010; (Haboldt & Co., Paris); purchased 2011 by NGA.
- Mayor, W. A Brief Chronological Description of a Collection of Original Drawings and Sketches by the Most Celebrated Masters. London, 1875: no. 923
- Grasselli, Margaret Morgan. "Jan van Huysum, Bouquet of Spring Flowers." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 45 (Fall 2011): 19, color repro.