Jan van Huysum was unmatched in his ability to capture the sheer joy of viewing a profuse array of flowers and fruit. In this superb example, flowers overflow a putti-decorated terra-cotta vase while peaches and grapes spill over the foreground marble ledge, creating a sense of opulent abundance. Woven in and out of the densely packed bouquet of peonies, roses, carnations, and auriculae are the rhythmically flowing stems and blossoms of tulips, veronica, tuberoses, and hops. The large red bud of the opium poppy, flanked by a hollyhock and a tuberose, anchors the crown of the bouquet.
Van Huysum’s lasting fame has centered not only on his exuberant arrangements, but also on his technical virtuosity. He could convey both the undulating rhythms of a striped tulip’s petal and the glistening sheen of its variegated surface. He skillfully integrated insects into his bouquets and suggested the translucence of dewdrops on the petals and leaves. He delighted in enhancing the flowers’ vivid colors—primarily pinks, yellows, oranges, reds, and purples—with striking light effects that add to the visual richness. As in this instance, he often illuminated blossoms situated at the back of the bouquet, against which he silhouetted darker foreground leaves and tendrils.
This painting is especially rich in its profusion of flowers and insects. Sam Segal has identified in this work some forty varieties of flowers, eight types of butterflies, and seven species of other insects. Van Huysum also included both purple and green grapes, using their colors, as well as the reds and yellows of the apricot and peaches, to provide a seamless display of visual interest throughout the image. Just how he assembled such a wide variety of specimens and composed them into a complex arrangement has never been fully determined.
Van Huysum derived his compositional ideals and technical prowess from the examples of two important predecessors, Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, 1606 - 1684) and Willem van Aelst (Dutch, 1627 - 1683). Following De Heem’s lead, Van Huysum introduced flowing rhythms to his flowers and rendered their forms and textures with great care and sensitivity to give his bouquets a lifelike appearance. As did De Heem, Van Huysum incorporated a wide variety of plant species in his bouquets, including wheat and fruit, and he grouped together flowers that do not blossom at the same time, for example, tulips and morning glories. From Van Aelst he learned the advantages of concentrating brightly lit flowers to focus the dynamically swirling rhythms underlying his compositions. In this work, he massed his colors and forms to create a sweeping arced flow from the tuberose in the upper right, through the large open tulip, the group of roses, and then back through the array of fruit in the lower right.
The dark background of this painting is characteristic of works the artist produced in the second decade of the eighteenth century, as, for example, a flower piece in Karlsruhe, dated 1714, that depicts a bouquet in a dark niche [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Jan van Huysum, Floral Still Life, 1714, oil on panel, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe. © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe 2010. Photo: W. Pankoke. One early critic commented that Van Huysum “painted his flowers and fruit for many years on dark backgrounds, against which, in his opinion, they stood out more, and were better articulated. Everyone praised these pieces as wonderful, as impossible to surpass.” Shortly after 1720, in response to the evolving tastes of his patrons, Van Huysum changed his style and situated his floral bouquets against light backgrounds, many of which were outdoor garden settings (see Flowers in an Urn).
Van Huysum was reputedly a secretive artist who forbade anyone, including his own brothers, to enter his studio for fear that they would learn how he purified and applied his colors. Thus, many questions about his painting process remain unanswered. Similarities in the shapes and character of individual blossoms in different still-life paintings indicate that he must have adapted drawn or painted models to satisfy pictorial demands. The auction of his estate in 1749 included “some studies of flower pieces,” a “masterful Study of a pot with Flowers,” and “Another sketchbook with Studies.” Nevertheless, a study of an individual flower made for a specific painting has yet to be discovered. It seems that Van Huysum painted at least some of his flowers from life. In 1742 he wrote a letter to a patron in which he explained that he could not complete a still life that included a yellow rose until that flower blossomed the following spring. Indeed, this Amsterdam artist’s keenness for studying flowers led him to spend a portion of each summer in Haarlem, then as now a horticultural center.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014