Situated as they are against a pale greenish-ocher background, the subtle colors and organic rhythms of Van Huysum’s exuberant floral display create an elegant ensemble. The poppy, morning glory, and ranunculus tendrils that weave in and out of the densely massed rose, vinca, carnation, iris, and tulip blossoms carry the eye throughout the bouquet, so that the viewer takes in the entire arrangement without focusing unduly upon any individual blossom. The image’s decorative character is further enhanced by the terra-cotta vase embellished with playful cupids and the precariously perched nest containing three pale blue eggs.
Van Huysum is known to have studied with his father, Justus van Huysum (1659–1716), yet in this work the primary artistic inspiration must have been that of Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606 - 1684). De Heem, whose realistic depictions of natural forms were greatly admired in the early eighteenth century, similarly organized his flower bouquets with sweeping rhythms that draw the eye in a circular pattern throughout the composition (see Vase of Flowers). His remarkable painting techniques allowed him to create illusionistic images of individual blossoms. De Heem’s complex bouquets included flowers that would never be in bloom at the same time, for example, tulips and morning glories, and Van Huysum likewise took pleasure in including such improbable combinations in his paintings. Perhaps following De Heem’s lead, Van Huysum similarly depicted both tightly formed blossoms at the height of their beauty and tulips with wide opened petals, indicative of flowers past their prime. Moreover, like De Heem, Van Huysum enlivened his scenes with insects of various types, such as small ants crawling on (and occasionally eating) petals and butterflies alighting on the uppermost blossoms. Finally, whether as an artistic conceit or to emphasize the freshness of the bouquet, both artists delighted in depicting dewdrops gathered on the green leaves. The water droplets act as a foil to the delicate colors and shapes of the blossoms and also add small accents of light that further activate the compositions.
Despite the similarities in concept apparent in the works of these two men, great differences also exist. De Heem preferred a dark background against which he could contrast the whites and vibrant colors of his bouquet and concentrate the energy of his composition. Van Huysum, by contrast, chose later in his career to use backgrounds with a light tonality so that he could create a more delicate and, ultimately, more decorative image. De Heem often included nonfloral elements, such as stalks of grain and bean pods, that were instrumental in conveying an underlying religious meaning for his paintings. Van Huysum, on the other hand, does not appear to have chosen specific types of plants for their symbolic associations. Rather, he seems to have designed floral arrangements to suggest both the richness and fertility of nature and, through allusions to the cycle of life, the transience of earthly existence.
The chronological evolution of Van Huysum’s style is difficult to determine because of the relative paucity of dated still lifes. This work, however, with its light background, must date shortly after Still Life with Flowers and Fruit and belong to the early part of Van Huysum’s mature phase, which began around 1720. Infrared reflectography seems to confirm this, as it reveals in the upper right corner a sharply defined vertical element resembling a pilaster—an architectural element that began to appear in his work in that decade. During the early 1720s he tended to place his flowers in terra-cotta vases decorated with playful putti fashioned after the relief sculptures of François Duquesnoy. This work is more lyrically composed than his early flower still life in Karlsruhe dated 1714 [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Jan van Huysum, Floral Still Life, 1714, oil on panel, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe. © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe 2010. Photo: W. Pankoke, but is not as complex as, for example, the asymmetrically conceived Bouquet of Flowers in an Urn, 1724, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Jan van Huysum, Bouquet of Flowers in an Urn, 1724, oil on panel, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Edward William Carter. Other characteristics of the somewhat later style of the Los Angeles painting are the ornately shaped stone ledge and the outdoor setting.
With his technical virtuosity and precise observations of flowers and fruit, Van Huysum was able to convey both the varied rhythms of a striped tulip’s petal and the glistening sheen of its variegated surface. Just how he achieved these effects has never been precisely determined because he was a secretive artist who hid his artistic techniques from others. Nevertheless, it would seem that his paintings combine blossoms rendered from life and those derived from drawn models. In a letter to a patron in 1742, Van Huysum complained that he could not complete a still life that included a yellow rose until the flower blossomed the following spring. The rose in question was presumably similar to the hybrid known as Rosa huysumiana seen in the left center of this painting. Indeed, certain of his paintings carry two dates from consecutive years. While it is not known whether Van Huysum painted this work over an extended period of time, PentimentiAn alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted., particularly near the poppies at the top of the bouquet, indicate that he made significant changes in the arrangement of these compositional elements.
Van Huysum’s dynamic painting process is further revealed through infrared reflectography, which shows that he both left reserves for flowers and stalks that were never included in the final composition and also painted blooms for which he did not make a reserve, only to paint them out at a later stage. While such alterations and revisions may complicate our understanding of Van Huysum’s process, it is precisely the complex evolution of the present work that lends the floral arrangement such vigor and spontaneity.
Original entry by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., April 24, 2014.
Revised by Alexandra Libby to incorporate information from a new technical examination.
December 9, 2019