Brosschaert’s Still Life Flowers: Precedents to Tulipmania

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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 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] As 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 own town.[7]

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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 watercolor 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 seashells. 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 these 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 compositions.

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.

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