In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was a thriving
metropolis, with commerce shaping the worldview of these citizens. More
specifically, Dutch still life flower paintings reflected a deep interest in
exotic nature, not only in commerce, but also with art’s relationship to nature
as well as focus on community and exchange, making it possible for these
artists to visualize a discourse that is distinctly Dutch. While commerce is
used as an overarching term to describe the economic climate, this interest in
botany is more about exchange and experience of the Dutch people. Ambrosius
Bosschaert, the Elder’s oeuvre is a site that illustrates this intersection
between science, art and commerce. In turn, Bosschaert’s artworks function as
the visual precedent for the works produced during and after tulipmania. In doing so, these works
operated within a culture of exchange, through the deliberate positioning of
flora as well as articulating the experimentations conducted on these flowers.
Before analyzing Bosschaert’s works
during this time, it is important to consider the conditions that constructed
tulipmania and a broader interest in art and nature. Decades after the initial
end to the eighty year war against Spain, The Dutch Republic developed a
centralized area that surpassed the economic growth in neighbouring countries.
In his account of the Dutch Republic’s historical development, Charles K.
Wilson described this moment as an increase in population and trade: “Although
most of Europe was basically an agrarian, rural society and economy, and much
of it remained self-sufficient with only tenuous links with the outside world,
the Dutch were busily developing an economy based on exchange”1
With this in mind, the Dutch had access to intellectual developments that operated
outside of their republic. The economic development led to a culture of
collecting and acquiring of luxury goods, with paintings, like Bosschaert’s,
providing a visual history of this interest. However, this culture was not
constructed on economic means exclusively.
Anne Goldgar describes this
intersection in the following quotation:
Tulip came to the Netherlands in part because of an interest
in science, but there were embraced because such an interest was shared by more
ordinary citizens with some money in their pockets. They came also because they
must have inspired some of the same kinds of feelings as paintings, another
object in which such people invested in their money. And they came because they
were in fashion.2
this interest develops, artists, like Bosschaert, saw this as an opportunity to
adapt to these economic conditions for their personal profit. As these imported
goods arrived, painters marketed their own works, specifically still life
paintings, as luxury items, resulting in their deep participation in commercial
exchange. Overall, the Dutch exhibited a “mercantilist and procapialist culture
in which commodities played an immense role in the cultural consciousness.”3
With the arrival of tulips from Vienna, the still life paintings illustrated by
Bosschaert, visualize this cultural interest in tulips and their exotic nature,
in comparison to their domestic flora.4
To illustrate, Bosschaert’s Flower Still
Life (see fig. 1) depicts the abundance of flowers presented in an
interwoven basket, with insects positioned below the basket. In turn, the
presentation of the flowers in this manner reinforce this intention to market
their paintings as luxury items. In other words, the paintings themselves were
regarded to be on the same level as the commodities that arrived from abroad.
While Bosschaert demonstrated his adaptability to the art markets, his
interactions with merchants and scientists are equally as important to how he
conceived these still life paintings. Outside of the capitalist framework,
these objects, should be considered in their function to establish the
collector’s status. Overall, the artistic practice of Dutch artists “preceded a
society’s obsession with material objects and made visual art the natural site
of its discourse.”5 Unlike a financial crisis,
tulipmania visualized a crisis experienced on a social level: “Dutch burghers confronted
a series of issues that in any case grippled their culture: novelty, the
exotic, capitalism, immigration, the growth of urban societies, and all the
problems and excitement such issues raised.”6
Provided that these individuals experienced these various developments,
Bosschaert pursued his curiosity around these flowers, through his interactions
with intellectuals interested in science and botany. To be brief, Bosschaert
moved with his father from his hometown Antwerp to Middleburg, where he worked
primarily as an art dealer. Over time, he navigated his way into the social
circles that would give him access to viewing these exotic flowers within his
A point often overlooked is that these artists did not have direct access to
these tulips. To render these flowers correctly, they worked to establish
connections with the people in their social sphere, namely those who maintained
or owned the private gardens in Middleburg. In addition to the access to
private gardens, Elizabeth Honig describes the lengthy process to be a series
of exchanges, first with an introduction, another involving an acquisition as
well as a possible third-party that would need to provide transport for the
samples. She emphasizes that purchasing these tulips were prohibited, as the
collectors opted for favours or giving gifts in exchange for access or samples
of these specimens.8 As explored above,
Bosschaert relied on establishing personal connections to receive access to
these rare flowers. In a broader context, Bosschaert operated within a culture
of exchange, intending to make these flower compositions just as enticing as
imported luxury goods.
While navigating this community of
exchange, Bosschaert’s works also visualize a deeper interest in the
classification of art and nature. In turn, Bosschaert used specific visual
conventions in his attempt to emulate the exotic nature of these flowers. While
these natural objects are transformed into luxury items, one must consider the
artist’s desire to control the presentation of these flowers. On her analysis
of tulips, Goldgar points towards a deeper consideration behind the artist’s
motive. With the increasing aesthetic and commercial value of these tulips,
people became increasingly desperate to intervene the natural processes,
although the variation of these tulips would be determined long after
tulipmania.9 In Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, Bosschaert reflects this interest in
the various stages of flower life. In the lower half of the artwork, a yellow
flower is inverted, pointing down toward the ground, signalling the end of its
life. As well, the two flowers on the right side of the vase appear in late
bloom, while the flowers above appear in full bloom. What is important to
remember is that Bosschaert did not visualize these flowers to be withering
away, as he intended these works to be appreciated at the same level as the
actual flowers themselves. While Bosschaert made not have personal access to
these specimens, he used other means to study these flowers. Wolfgang Stechow’s
analysis of Bosschaert’s still life proposes that he would have relied on water
colour studies as other artists like his brother-in-law, Balthasar van der Ast,
used these references extensively in their oeuvre.10
As these works involved a deep interest in the flowers’ evolving colours, the
water colour studies provided some guidance to capture these rich colours. For
this reason, the arrangements illustrated in Bosschaert’s works exhibit
similarities throughout. To illustrate, Bouquet
of Flowers in a Vase, a single flower is positioned at the top of the
assemblage. In turn, this single flower anchors the painting, balancing the flowers
that occupy the space. As well, the bouquet features a flower, placed on the
left of the vase, opposite of the sea shells on the right. Similarly, Bouquet in an Arched Window presents a
flower at the top, as well as the inclusion of a flower on the left and two sea
shells. Moreover, both artworks include insects, reflecting his intent to present
these flower compositions, not simply as conventional still life paintings, but
operating on the same cultural level as these exotic objects. Dorothy Mahon
points out this similarities in Dutch still life, arguing that still-life
painters used working models, allowing the painter to “represent flowers from
various seasons in the same arrangement.”11
The use of these models required the artist to make a careful consideration in
their earlier studies, as the flowers were constantly changing through the
seasons. With these careful compositions of exotic flowers, these works
function as an emulation of these objects of nature. While they are rendered to
be a market commodity, these still life paintings operate within a broader
framework of symbolism and commodity culture.
In his analysis of Dutch still life painting in this century,
Harry Berger Jr. argues that the bouquet of flowers represents a studio
practice and that these works were not realistic imitations of those flowers.
To be specific, he points out that these works involved the artist “putting
flowers in a vase on a table in an interior and copying them.”12
In the artworks looked at previously, this deliberate positioning is evident
through the single flower and the sea shells, placed right in between the vase
itself and the picture plane. Similarly, Flower
Still Life, exhibits this careful position, with a butterfly and a
dragonfly moving through the flowers littered in front of the basket. This
inclusion of insects visualizes an active artwork, with these insects crawling onto
the abundant assemblage of flowers. With respect to the vase paintings, Berger
claims that these works imitate a pre-text but “the claim to truthiness is
ostensively flagged as a misrepresentation by stylistic and other cues that
invite a skeptical response to it. The pre-text is a pretext.”13
Although these artists claimed to want to capture the overall realism of these
flowers, the reality is that many of these depictions have been carefully
constructed to convey its exotic beauty, rather than the real, withering nature
of these delicate flowers. Aside from this floral fantasy, Bosschaert’s works
also were meant to be appreciated with a layer of symbolism familiar to the
Dutch viewer. The flowers that circulated at that time were believed to be in
accordance with Christian symbols: “For instance, the iris had long been
associated with the Virgin, and the peony and thorned rose were emblematic of
the Passion of Christ. Because of its metamorphosis the butterfly referred to
the soul or to the Resurrection, while the lizard served as a reminder of the
serpent in the Garden of Eden or of the devil himself.”14
Deviating from a solely commercial narrative, Berger here indicates a religious
undertone within these works. It can be said that Bosschaert kept religious
values in mind while creating these works. Like vanitas compositions, still life flower paintings reminded the
viewer of their own mortality, as well acknowledging the various changes
happening around them. In other words, these works reflect the lived experience
of Bosschaert as he visualizes the going interest in exotic flowers. On a
societal level, these works function as visualizing the relationship between
art and craft, along with science to “remake the world of objects.”15
By considering these intersections, the still life flower paintings can be
understood as providing a visual narrative of the ideas that circulated at the
time. Instead of an overarching market undertone, the works reflect
Bosschaert’s effort to illustrate these flowers at the ground-level, relying
his establishment of social networks and exchange, affording these kinds of
With the increasing interest in natural objects, Bosschaert
had to establish several connections in his community to access these exotic
flowers. Within this culture of exchange, not only does one witness these
interactions but also the ideas that circulated in that moment. Prior to the
Dutch obsession with tulips, artists were already exploring these objects and
how they could be shaped by the human touch. Just as important, these still
life paintings echo a tradition in Dutch art, working in accordance with the
religious undertones of that time. While the Dutch republic is defined as
exhibiting one of the earliest moments of commerce, the individuals at this
time worked together to create communities based on exchange. Overall, these
still life paintings functioned as a visual articulation of the various ideas
that artists like Bosschaert were exposed to within a vast material culture
that is undoubtedly Dutch.
Charles K. Wilson. 1990. “A New
Republic.” Mirror of Empire 37-50.
2 Anne Goldgar. 2014. Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 7.
3 Elizabeth Alice Honig. 1998.
“Making Sense of Things: On the Motives of Dutch Still Life.” RES:
Anthropology and Aesthetics (34): 166-83.
Goldgar, Tulipmania, 7.
“Making Sense of Things,” 168.
Goldgar, Tulipmania, 7.
7 Wolfgang Stechow.
“Ambrosius Bosschaert: Still Life.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland
Museum of Art 53, no. 3 (1966): 62.
“Making Sense of Things,” 80.
9 Anne Goldgar. 2002. “Nature as Art: The Case of
the Tulip.” In Merchants and Marvels. Commerce, Science and Art in
Early Modern Europe, (Routledge, 2002), 328.
Wolfgang Stechow, “Ambrosius
Bosschaert: Still Life,” 64.
Mahon. 1993. “A New Look at a Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life.” The
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 33.
Harry Jr. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still
Life Painting. (New York: Fordham University Press), 40.
“A New Look…,” 33, 36.
Goldgar, Tulipmania, 93.