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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Ambrosius Bosschaert/Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase/1621,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 21, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version

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Ambrosius Bosschaert was a pioneer in the history of Dutch still lifes and a painter of joyful flower bouquets. He had an unerring awareness of composition, and delighted in combining flowers with a wide variety of colors and shapes to create a pleasing and uplifting visual experience. As in this exquisite work, Bosschaert generally arranged his blossoms symmetrically. Here, two spectacular blossoms, a yellow iris and a red-and-white striped tulip, surmount a bouquet composed of numerous species, among them roses, a blue-and-white columbine, fritillaria, grape hyacinth, lily of the valley, and a sprig of rosemary. A damselfly alighting on the iris and a butterfly on the cyclamen blossom that rests on the wooden tabletop further enliven the composition.

Following Antwerp’s reconquest by Spanish forces in 1585 and the subsequent expulsion of all non-Catholics, the Protestant Bosschaert family moved north to Middelburg in about 1589. Middelburg, a prosperous trading center and the capital of Zeeland, was renowned for its botanical gardens, the most important of which was established in the 1590s by the great botanist Matthias Lobelius. After 1602 this herb garden was transformed into a flower garden, and almost certainly filled with exotic species imported from the Balkan peninsula, the Near and Far East, and the New World. Bosschaert, who may have trained with his father, probably began his career making drawings of rare and exotic flowers in such gardens; he certainly used preparatory images drawn from life to compose his paintings, sometimes depicting individual flowers in reverse. His style of flower painting became more naturalistic over time, as he developed techniques for rendering petals with soft, velvety textures. He also introduced subtle tonal gradations in the backgrounds to enhance the sensation of light flooding the image.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase occupies a special place in Bosschaert's oeuvre, not only because it was painted in the year of the artist’s death, but also because it contains a moving testimony to his enormous reputation. Inscribed on an illusionistic plaque attached to the table's front are the words: "C'est l'Angelicq[ue] main du gra[n]d Peinctre de Flore / AMBROISE, renommé jusqu'au Rivage Moré" (This is the angelic hand of the great painter of Flora, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of the Moré). The knowledge that the Moré River is located on the Gold Coast of Africa and that the name Ambrosius derives from the Greek word ambrotos, meaning "immortal," lends an even more laudatory note to the statement.


Ambrosius Bosschaert infused his flower bouquets with a sense of wonder. He had an unerring compositional awareness, and delighted in combining an array of flowers of various colors and shapes to create a pleasing and uplifting visual experience. Here, a spectacular yellow bearded iris and a red-and-white striped tulip surmount a bouquet that also contains, among others, roses, a blue-and-white columbine, fritillaria, grape hyacinth, lily of the valley, forget-me-not, globeflowers, and a sprig of rosemary.[1] At the base of the ribbed onion-shaped glass vase lie a pansy and a cyclamen blossom.[2] A damselfly alighting on the iris and a Red Admiral butterfly on the cyclamen further enliven the composition. These flowers could not have all been in bloom at the same time; therefore, and because several of them recur in other paintings by Bosschaert, he must have worked from memory or from drawings he kept in his studio.[3]

At the lower right edge of the stone ledge are the artist’s monogram and the date 1621, the year of his death. The picture is made all the more poignant by the French inscription, written in gold lettering on a blue ground, that fills an illusionistic plaque attached to the ledge’s front: “C'est l'Angelicq[ue] main du gra[n]d Peinctre de Flore / AMBROISE, renommé jusqu' au Rivage Moré” (This is the angelic hand of the great painter of Flora, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of the Moré).[4] The inscription offers a moving testament to the artist's enormous reputation, which, as the phrase implies, extended to the farthest reaches of the Dutch commercial empire.[5]

This exceptional painting is the one that Bosschaert took with him in 1621, when he traveled from Breda to The Hague to deliver a blompot (flower still-life painting) to Frederick van Schurman (or Schuermans), the bottelier of Prince Maurits.[6] For this work Bosschaert received the extraordinary sum of 1,000 guilders. Unfortunately, according to the artist’s daughter Maria, Bosschaert fell ill while in The Hague and died in the home of his patron, “to the sorrow of many art lovers.” Frederick van Schurman had been ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, and Maria Bosschaert referred to Van Schurman as a joncker (from the German Junker), an honorary title that corresponds to the old inscription “Jonckheere” on the verso of the painting.

The illusionistic plaque was always conceived as part of the composition, although it is not known who actually composed and wrote the celebratory French text.[7] Not only did Bosschaert paint the shadow of the pansy falling over the plaque’s upper edge, but Infrared Reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[8] reveals that he carefully ruled in the plaque with dark lines before he began painting [fig. 1]. Bosschaert, in fact, made detailed Underdrawings of all of his pictorial elements: leaves, blossoms, and insects. He even indicated the painting’s central vertical axis with a ruled line.[9] It thus seems probable that Bosschaert’s patron specifically commissioned this bouquet of flowers to commemorate the artist and his fame. It is, tellingly, the only painting the artist ever made with such an illusionistic plaque. The importance of this work within Bosschaert’s oeuvre is further supported by the fact that Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger (1609–1645), the artist’s son, made three adaptations of the composition, one of which he painted on silver in 1627 [fig. 2].

Bosschaert’s carefully balanced composition reflects the naturalistic style of his flower paintings at this late period of his career. Although he surmounted this bouquet with two large flowers, much as he had done throughout his career, he arranged the rest of the flowers more informally than he had done in the previous decade, in part by overlapping individual blossoms. Moreover, his sophisticated glazing techniques allowed him to create soft, velvety textures for flower petals and leaves, an effect quite different from the crisp forms of his earlier style. He also introduced here subtle tonal gradations in the background to enhance the sensation of light flooding the image.

Floral still lifes became popular in the early seventeenth century, in part because they depicted the exquisite, imported blooms collected by wealthy citizens who wished to admire their colors and rhythmic forms throughout the year. Bosschaert’s bouquets capture the fragile beauty of flowers and the sense of hope and joy they represent. They seem so real we almost believe it is their aroma—and not the artist’s brush—that has drawn the damselflies and butterflies to their petals. Bosschaert’s approach to flower painting, in which blossoms that bloom at different times of the year are assembled into a single sumptuous display, reflects a fundamental theological belief then held by both Catholics and Protestants: that God's munificence was to be found in the extraordinary richness and beauty of the natural world.[10] Thus, even as pictorial accuracy was important in recording God's individual creations—flowers, insects, and shells—an imaginative melding such as that found here was meant to celebrate the greatness of his blessings. It is, however, only through the delicacy of Bosschaert’s touch—his “angelic hand”—that this bouquet achieves a lifelike quality analogous to God’s own creativity.[11]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower right in monogram: .AB.1621; across bottom in blue field: C'est l'Angelicq[ue] main du gra[n]d Peinctre de Flore / AMBROISE, renommé jusqu' au Rivage Moré. (This is the angelic hand of the great painter of Flora, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of the Moré).



Probably painted 1621 for Frederick van Schurman (or Schuermans) [1564-1623], The Hague.[1] (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 7 April 1922, no. 54); private collection, England; (John Mitchell & Sons, London); private collection, England; (Edward Speelman, Ltd., London); purchased 27 June 1996 by NGA.

Exhibition History

The Inspiration of Nature, John Mitchell and Son, London, 1976, p. 24.
A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 7, fig. 13.
Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper, 1525-1775, Phoenix Art Museum; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1998-1999, not in catalogue (shown only in The Hague).
From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999, no. 11, fig. 32.
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Technical Summary

The support is a hammered sheet of copper. At some point, four strips of wood were added along the outer edges, framing the outer edges of the panel with a small wooden border that extends approximately an eighth to a quarter of an inch from the outermost edges of the copper sheet.

The ground appears to be a white or light colored layer, which is followed by a thin layer of yellow-gray paint that was presumably applied as an imprimatura. Infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 1.8 microns[1] revealed the presence of a highly detailed underdrawing. The entire composition is painted with extreme precision using thin layers of paint combined with a subtle layering technique. Bosschaert left several elements in the bouquet in reserve. The bouquet and the surrounding elements are painted with a colorful palette, using a variety of transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque layers. The highlights, the gold inscription, and the signature were most likely added during the final painting stages. The painting has not been treated since its acquisition by the National Gallery of Art.


[1] Infrared reflectography was performed using a Santa Barbara Focalplane InSb camera fitted with an H astronomy filter.


Mitchell, Peter. European Flower Painters. London, 1973: 59, repro.
Bakker, Noortje, et al. Masters of Middelburg: exhibition in the honour of Laurens J. Bol. (Exh. cat. Waterman Gallery, Amsterdam). Amsterdam, 1984: 65.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 24, 25, fig. 13, 65, no. 7.
Ploeg, Peter van der. "Copper as canvas: Two centuries of masterpiece paintings on copperplate." Mauritshuis in Focus 12, no. 1 (1999): 23-24, color repro. 24, fig. 13.
Wallert, Arie. Still lifes: techniques and style: the examination of paintings from the Rijksmuseum. (Exh. cat. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Zwolle, 1999.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999: 42-43, 83, no. 11, fig. 32.
National Gallery of Art. Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2000: 26-27, color repro.
Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil painting. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2002: 81-82, fig. 4.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 214-215, no. 172, color repro.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 31, 56, fig. 1.
Donovan, Patricia A. "Permanence in This Changing World: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment Challenge Grant." Art for the Nation no. 64 (Fall 2021): 6, repro.

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still life of plants and flowers
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