Jan Brueghel the Elder: ‘Still Life with Tulips, Chrysanthemums, Narcissi, Roses, Irises and other Flowers in a Glass Vase’, 1608-1610. (Note - pictured has been cropped to meet fixed dimensions of webpage.) Oil on copper © Private Collection, Hong Kong

Small, But Perfectly Formed

8th April 2016

A new National Gallery exhibition charts the evolution of Dutch flower painting across two centuries. Jack Watkins went along...

It’s that time of the year. Leaves are opening, buds are bursting and, on bright days at least, the air is full of the joy of awakening spring. The Hampton Court and Chelsea Flower Shows on the horizon are like a couple of hardy perennials that continually return to epitomise the expectations of the new season, and this year we also have a new exhibition at the National Gallery to chime with the moment, shining a spotlight on the delightful genre of Dutch flower painting.

This is a small, free exhibition, with only twenty-two paintings on display, in Room 1 of the gallery, so it’s easily assimilated. There should be more of these small exhibitions. In fact, there are, but they don’t always get picked up by the press. Of course, you can understand why galleries pour their energies into promoting the heavy-duty blockbuster shows. The commercial pressures they are under to maximize income grow by the year. These events do become a test of endurance at times, though, and I’m sure it’s not just weary press hacks who feel that way. The ‘less is more’ approach, so lacking in modern life, is vastly underappreciated.

The other advantage of the smaller show is that, shorn of the need to hit box-office targets, they can shine a torch on lesser known, but highly skilled practitioners. Dutch Flowers claims to feature an example from every major painter to have been involved in the genre, from the Dutch Golden Age of the 1700s into the early 18th century. You might not have heard of all the names, and you might not as a general rule feel especially gripped by still life art, but there are some staggering beauties on view here.

When early painters depicted flowers, it was frequently as a metaphor of the fleeting nature of life. By the early 1600s, however, there was a growing interest in the natural sciences, especially in botany and horticulture. This led to the founding of the first botanical gardens, and the publication of illustrated herbaria. Adrian Collaert’s Florilegium, published at the end of the 16th century, featured engraved illustrations of flowers and was an important source of inspiration for many artists.

Quite how Jan Brueghel the Elder felt about being nicknamed ‘Flower Brueghel’ may never be known, but he is invariably cited as one of the major names of Dutch flower painting. Often a collaborator with Rubens, painting the garlands that framed some of the latter’s religious commissions, he worked for emperors, kings and bishops, and went to great lengths to accurately depict plants. He once told the Cardinal of Milan that he’d taken so long to complete a particular work because the flowers which were specified to be included were in bloom at different times of the year. The first still life he ever did included no less than seventy-two varieties of spring and summer flowers. The one on display in Dutch Flowers is a little less extravagant, but still manages to pack in tulips, chrysanths, narcissi, roses, irises and ‘other flowers’.

Another early ‘great’ was Roelandt Savery, who was court painter to Emperor Rudolph II, even doing a painting from life of the dodo in Rudolph’s menagerie. His tasteful bouquets were often set against stone niches and animated by highly lifelike frogs, butterflies and beetles. Flowers in a Glass is a typical mixture of accuracy and artistic licence, with dragonflies and butterflies alighting on the leaves, and frogs and lizards flanking the vase, which is filled with spring-blooming tulips and fritillaries, and summer-growing herbs.

Savery had a fondness for exotic plants shared by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, another name it’s impossible to bypass when looking at Dutch flower art. Around two hundred new flower species were introduced into the Netherlands in the 17th century, when rare plants were something of status symbol, giving him ample subject matter. Bosschaert also had a penchant for painting tulips, which would be the subject of Dutch mania in the 1630s. He again followed Savery’s in setting flowers in niches, but was nonetheless quite restrained in his compositions, the arrangements carefully arrayed in porcelain or glass vases.

A rare example of a 17th century female artist, Rachel Ruysch must have been regarded as something of an exotic in her own right, but she is no token inclusion in this show, for she was up with the best of the Dutch painters in this genre. Her father was the head of a botanical garden, and in 1708 her talent was rewarded with the prestigious appointment of court painter to the Elector Palatine of Dusseldorf. The painterly qualities inherent in her studies can be seen in simply titled pieces like Flowers in a Vase. It’s plain from Rutsch’s paintings, and those of Dirck de Bray, that as the century progressed, artists had become more compositionally daring. The background in De Bray’s Flowers in a White Stone Vase is mysterious, almost moody, helped by strong directional light on the flowers and the base of the vase.

Then there was Jan Davidsz de Heem. He’d settled in Antwerp in the 1630s and produced elaborately staged pictures which had a remarkably tactile quality. As paintings became larger, he managed to instill a sense of depth of field, and his deployment of light and tonal effects was masterly. In Flowers in a Glass Bottle on a Marble Plinth, the stems and tendrils look as if they could snake their way out beyond the canvas, achieving a real feeling of dynamism and movement. As such, de Heem came to be seen as the most radical of the Dutch flower painters.

Yet for eyecatchers in this little show, I have to award the palm to Jan van Huysum and his contemporaries in the 18th century. No longer was the rather formal, symmetrical flowers in a vase arrangement of earlier decades enough, and instead their compositions were luxuriantly ornamental, radiating colour. This wasn’t at the expense of accuracy. In Glass Vase with Flowers, with a Poppy and a Finch Nest, Huysum was so careful to render specimens correctly that an expert could even identify the mosses in the finch nest. Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase is simply glorious, and Flowers in a Terrace Vase monumental, the flowers no longer in a humble vase, but in a large decorated urn on a plinth.

Wybrand Hendriks’ Fruit, Flowers and Dead Birds is more sumptuous still, with a stand of red marble, set against an arboreal backdrop. Jan van Os, who exhibited his flower paintings at London’s Society of Arts to acclaim, didn’t exactly stint on the supporting pictorial effects either. Like van Huysum, his towering flower arrangements were placed in classical settings, as in Fruits and Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, with its colonnaded background.

Many of the works on show here have only recently been acquired by the Gallery, but others are from private collections, so this is a rare chance to see some of them. The inscription at the foot of one reads: ‘What you see in these flowers which appear before you will vanish. Beware – only God’s word flourishes forever’. Even so, the makers of these charming works, with not a single weak picture among them, certainly created a genre that has stood the test of time.

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