Oil on panel
75 x 107 cm
signed on the slab ‘B.vander. ast”(lower center)
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The present still life by Balthasar van der Ast is a true masterpiece of the first half of the 17th century. Van der Ast can be seen as one of the most important still life painters from this era. This example of his work is exceptional both in quality and in size. To find his paintings in such a superb condition is very rare. That this representative and large work should have traversed four centuries and remained in such impeccable condition classes it amongst the highest rarities.
It is one of the very few large showpieces that he made and probably the finest. In fact it was a showcase of the various objects, kinds of fruit and flowers, seashells (for which he was very famous), porcelain, exotic birds, insects, etcetera, which the artist could paint. It is possible to view each separate item as a still life in its own right. The objective was to demonstrate the artist’s full range of abilities, techniques and subject matter. This gave the client the possibility to select a favourite subject, so he could order a still life painting according to his wishes and possibilities. As such it is a kind of catalogue of the possibilities and a showcase.
Balthasar Van der Ast is one of the most important Dutch still life painters of the 17th century. His contribution to this genre consists of approximately 200 large and small format paintings, characterised by their finesse and subtlety. The present work is a typical example from this Utrecht period, where settled in 1619, and during which time he began to distance himself stylistically from his brother-in-law and teacher, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621). Utrecht at the time must have been a highly stimulating environment for the young Van der Ast. Not only had Roelandt Savery (circa 1576-1639) settled here upon his return from Prague, but soon Bosschaert the Elder’s three sons, Ambrosius the Younger (1609-1645), Johannes (1608-1629) and Abraham (1612-1643) would move from Middelburg to Utrecht, making the city a new centre for still life painting from 1620 on.
The pervading motifs in the present work are a direct result of the widespread fascination in Holland at this time for the Exotic, kindled by the Dutch East India Company’s newly developed trade routes to the Asian continent. Some examples of this are the seashells depicted here: from left to right, a West Indian „cittarium pica” with a hermit crab, an orange-flecked „mitra mitra”, a small golden „conus aurantius” and a „marbled cone shell”, one of Van der Ast’s signature elements and highly prized by Dutch collectors. The two parrots, which were considered curiosities in the 17th century and possessed only by wealthy families, also add an exotic and luxurious element to the composition, as does the Wanli porcelain vase to the right of the painting. Similar vases can be found in approximately fifteen small-format still lifes by Van der Ast from the 1620’s, none of which can be traced to a specific prototype, as the artist constantly varied the vases’ decoration.
The floral arrangement in the present work is comparable with the somewhat later composition “Flowers in a vase with seashells and insects”, in the National Gallery, London (inv. no. NG6593, oil on panel, circa 1630, 47 x 36.8 cm). This motif was apparently inspired by the numerous floral bouquets in Wanli vases painted by Van der Ast’s master, Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, for example a composition from 1619 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inv. no. SK-A-1522, oil on copper, 31 x 22.5 cm). In contrast to the work of Bosschaert, more concerned with an artistic rendering of nature, Van der Ast endowed a feeling of elegance and intimacy to his paintings, expressed in the work offered here in an exemplary manner.