The Delft painter Jacob Vosmaer was an early if not pioneering specialist in the painting of flower pictures, which often depict rare specimens known to the artists solely from illustrated books. At some time before 1870 this panel was trimmed on the sides and cut down (about nine inches) at the top, cropping the crown imperial.
In this early example of flower painting in the Netherlands, a bouquet of rare flowers is arranged in an earthenware pot that is set into a large stone niche. The panel has been trimmed on both sides, and cut down at the top by nearly a quarter of the composition's original height (see Mahon 1993/94). The picture's design was originally quite similar to that of Vosmaer's Still Life of Flowers with a Fritillary in a Stone Niche (private collection, Amsterdam), which shows an ample volume of space around the pot of flowers and the curved wall of the niche advancing in sunlight to the chipped edge of a wall on the right. This frontal element, the worn stone sill at the bottom, and the strong shadows cast by flowers on the pot and by the bouquet on the background create a sense of illusionistic space to a degree rarely found in contemporary Dutch or Flemish flower pictures.
In The Met's painting, by contrast, flowers nearly fill the upper half of the picture field, and the crown imperial at the top (which was restored by referring to the painting in Amsterdam) is abruptly cut by the frame, all of which tends to emphasize the panel's surface rather than recession in space. In addressing this problem, a virtue was made of necessity when the picture was provided with a seventeenth-century red tortoiseshell frame, which pulls the colorful whole together as a decorative ensemble. But the effect at a normal viewing distance is surely quite different from that intended by the artist. In a domestic interior of the period, the Amsterdam panel, with its life-size motifs flooded by a consistent fall of light, must have created the impression of a real bouquet filling an actual niche in the wall.
Although the arrangements in the Amsterdam and New York paintings are hardly identical, a number of flowers are repeated in the same positions, such as the five largest flowers at the bottom of the bouquet, and the flame tulip and crown imperial (a kind of fritillary) at top center. In the present picture, a lizard occupies the lower right corner, a different petal curves over the edge of the sill, and a fallen sprig to the left replaces the mouse seen in the Amsterdam painting.
The wood supports of the two pictures are more intimately related than are the images they bear. X-radiographs indicate that the central boards of tropical wood—vertical planks about 24 inches (61 cm) wide—match precisely in grain and knotholes. This means that a single board about 1/2 inch (1.27 cm) thick was split to make two thin boards. Narrow strips of oak were added to the lateral sides of the central board to make each panel. At some later date (perhaps in the eighteenth century), the New York panel was cut nearly to the join of the oak strip and central panel on the right, slightly into the tropical wood on the left, and by as much as 10 inches (25.4 cm) at the top.
That two closely related compositions were painted on wood panels crafted at the same time suggests that the pictures must have been executed either simultaneously or in immediate succession. Until its recent conservation, the Amsterdam panel was said to be dated 1618, but the most likely reading (according to the conservator responsible) now appears to be 1613. The last digit of the date on the New York painting was read in the past as a 5 (beginning with Decamps 1872, who mistook the support for copper). The digit is now illegible. The numbers 3 and 5, as inscribed on seventeenth-century Netherlandish pictures, have often been misread by modern viewers. In any case, it appears probable that both pictures were completed in or about 1613.
The two paintings were hung side by side in the New York venue of the exhibition Vermeer and the Delft School in 2001. They appeared entirely consistent in style and quality, allowing for their very different states of preservation. Liedtke (2001) suggests that the paintings may have been made as pendants, considering that their fictive niches would have complemented each other in an architectural ensemble, and that the specially made panels might have been intended for a particular patron. However, in the absence of documentation it seems equally or indeed more plausible that Vosmaer, like other still-life painters of the period, was simply producing versions of a successful design in an efficient manner. Greater variety in the bouquets, and in the type or presentation of the heavy pot (which is probably German stoneware), would be expected if the panels were meant to be seen as a pair.
The painter may never have seen a few of the flowers that are depicted here, but would have relied on printed sources such as Rembert Dodoens's Stirpium historiae pemptades sex (Antwerp, 1583) or representations by other artists. Dodoens illustrates one fritillary and describes another (imported from "Eastern parts") that he had seen seven years earlier in the garden of Emperor Maximilian in Vienna. The other flowers were cultivated in the Netherlands, or, in the case of the striped and flame tulips and the pink double hollyhocks (partly preserved at top left), had only recently been introduced from abroad. Vosmaer also includes roses, irises, a red anemone (just to the left of the butterfly on the flame tulip at bottom center), and, to its left, a type of fritillary commonly called a snake's head (see Additional Images, fig. 1). The colors of some of the flowers are reflected in the shiny surface of the pot, where the white rose casts an emphatic shadow.
Other artists preceded Vosmaer in painting this type of composition. Roelant Savery (1576–1639), from no later than 1603 onward, set similar bouquets in stone niches, with lizards, insects, and fallen petals on a sill, and by 1615 (if not earlier) was producing looser arrangements in more spacious settings, rather as in the original state of The Met's picture. Comparable works were also painted by Jacques de Gheyn the Elder. Vosmaer recalls De Gheyn in his comparatively fluid manner of execution. The two artists lived no more than an hour apart (by boat or on foot), in Delft and The Hague, respectively. The Delft flower painter Elias Verhulst (died 1601) was also presumably important for Vosmaer, to judge from Hendrick Hondius's 1599 engraving after his design (Albertina, Vienna). The sheer variety of flowers and the apparent originality of the open-arched composition (which evidently anticipates designs by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder [1573–1621]) suggest that Verhulst was an influential figure in the area of Delft and The Hague.
Cut flowers and chipped stone intimate that all things pass away, no matter how fresh or durable, but the main interest of Vosmaer's painting for his contemporaries would have been not symbolism but botany and, more broadly, the wonders of nature, where God creates forms that humankind can only catalogue and imitate.
[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): Vosmaer 16[13?]
?by descent to Martin comte Cornet de Ways Ruart, Brussels (until d. 1870); [Étienne Le Roy, Brussels, and Léon Gauchez, Paris, until 1870; sold to Blodgett]; William T. Blodgett, Paris and New York (from 1870; sold half share to Johnston); William T. Blodgett, New York, and John Taylor Johnston, New York (1870–71; sold to MMA)
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "Flower Paintings," March 7–30, 1952, no catalogue?
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "A World of Flowers," May 2–June 9, 1963, unnumbered cat.
New York. Union League Club. "Exhibition from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," November 23, 1969–January 2, 1970, checklist no. 6.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Louis Decamps. "Un musée transatlantique (2e article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 5 (May 1872), p. 437, as the only known work by Vosmaer, on copper, dated 1615.
Ralph Warner. Dutch and Flemish Flower and Fruit Painters of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries. London, 1928, p. 227, pl. 108d.
Alphonsus Petrus Antonius Vorenkamp. Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis van het hollandsch Stilleven in de zeventiende Eeuw. PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden. Leiden, 1933, p. 118, cites it as dated 1615.
Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 34, Leipzig, 1940, p. 560.
Margaretta Salinger. "Early Flower Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (May 1950), pp. 258–59, ill. on cover (color), as dated 1615; identifies the flowers depicted as peonies, tulips, roses, and irises.
Ingvar Bergström. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century. London, 1956, p. 54, as dated 1615, revealing that Vosmaer was a close follower of De Gheyn.
Walther Bernt. Die niederländischen Maler des 17. Jahrhunderts. Vol. 4, Munich, 1962, under no. 298, as dated 1615.
Sydney H[erbert]. Pavière. A Dictionary of Flower, Fruit, and Still Life Painters. Vol. 1, 15th–17th Centuries. Leigh-on-Sea, 1962, p. 65.
Peter Mitchell. Great Flower Painters: Four Centuries of Floral Art. Woodstock, N.Y., 1973, pp. 254, 257, 270, fig. 376, as Vosmaer's earliest known work, dated 1615.
Ingvar Bergström et al. Natura in posa: la grande stagione della natura morta europea. Milan, 1977, p. 219, ill., as dated 1615.
Laurens J. Bol. "'Goede onbekenden': hedendaagse herkenning en waardering van verscholen, voorbijgezien en onderschat talent." Tableau 4 (December 1981–January 1982), pp. 262, 268 n.6, as dated 1615.
Everett Fahy. Metropolitan Flowers. New York, 1982, pp. 82–83, ill. (color).
John Michael Montias. Artists and Artisans in Delft: A Socio-Economic Study of the Seventeenth Century. Princeton, 1982, p. 254, fig. 14, as dating from 1615.
Laurens J. Bol. "Goede Onbekenden": Hedendaagse herkenning en waardering van verscholen, voorbijgezien en onderschat talent. Utrecht, 1982, pp. 89, 96 n.6.
Laurens J. Bol. Holländische Maler des 17. Jahrhunderts nahe de grossen Meistern: Landschaften und Stilleben. 2nd ed. Munich, 1982, p. 43, as dated 1615, one of three signed and dated works by Vosmaer.
Peter van der Ploeg inBoeketten uit de Gouden Eeuw: Mauritshuis in Bloei/Bouquets from the Golden Age: The Mauritshuis in Bloom. Ed. Beatrijs Brenninkmeyer-de Rooij et al. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1992, p. 104, under no. 27, ill., conjectures that the top of the panel was cut, resulting in a "restless" design.
Beatrijs Brenninkmeyer-de Rooij inDawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580–1620. Ed. Ger Luijten et al. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum. Amsterdam, 1993–94, p. 606, under no. 278, mentions the painting as an "autograph version" of the Amsterdam picture, and cites a "third version, also slightly reduced".
Dorothy Mahon. "A New Look at a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 51 (Winter 1993/94), pp. 32–37, figs. 1 (before restoration), 2, 4, 5 (color, overall and details), describes its fragmentary state and its restoration; reviews the flowers and their possible symbolism; dates it between 1615 and 1620.
Erika Gemar-Koeltzsch. Luca Bild-Lexikon: Holländische Stillebenmaler im 17. Jahrhundert. Ed. Klaus Ertz and Christa Nitze-Ertz. Lingen, Germany, 1995, vol. 3, pp. 1067–68, no. 422/1, ill., as dated 1615.
Walter Liedtke et al. Vermeer and the Delft School. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2001, pp. 91, 425–26, fig. 300 (color), notes the "comparative fluidity" with which the picture is painted, considers this and the similar painting in a private collection, Amsterdam, to be the earliest known paintings by the artist, and suggests that the two works are pendants.
Adriaan van der Willigen and Fred G. Meijer. A Dictionary of Dutch and Flemish Still-life Painters Working in Oils, 1525–1725. Leiden, 2003, p. 211, mistakenly claim that the inscription "has recently been established as apocryphal".
Katharine Baetjer. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 172, 197, 204, 245, appendix 1A no. 69, ill. p. 204 and fig. 15, clarifies the provenance.
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, p. xi; vol. 2, pp. 927–30, no. 213, colorpl. 213, states that this work and the Amsterdam version were probably completed in or about 1613.
Fine seventeenth-century Dutch tortoise-shell frame