“Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts, like flies around a honey-pot. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever.”
Tulip mania, a socio-economic phenomenon during which prices for tulip bulbs swiftly soared to astonishing heights and then spectacularly collapsed, swept through the Low Countries from 1636 to 1637. The craze for tulips was the earliest recorded speculative bubble in world history. Exquisite representations of the prized blooms, like in the present work by Jan Brueghel the Elder, which he painted a quarter century before the tulip mania bubble burst, probably were not without blame in sparking this frenzy.
Floral still lifes emerged as a distinct genre of Dutch art around 1600 and quickly rose to immense popularity. While they may be understood as vanitas symbols, this development can also be linked to a growing scientific interest in botany and horticulture during this age, a greater availability of exotic plant species, thanks to increasing international trade, and the establishment of botanical gardens for academic study throughout Europe.
Jan Brueghel the Elder undoubtedly is one of the earliest and most celebrated representatives of Dutch flower painting, who channeled his deep curiosity for the natural world in his art. His flower pieces are not just highly decorative depictions of fabulous bouquets but must also be seen as encyclopedic collections of numerous botanic species. His early floral still lifes feature symmetrical, relatively flat arrangements of flowers, in which each specimen is clearly visible and identifiable. In a letter to his patron and friend Cardinal Borromeo the artist wrote about a similar piece: “I have invested all my skill in this picture. I do not believe that so many different flowers have been painted before, nor rendered so painstakingly: it will be a fine sight in the winter.”
The present painting features several varieties of striped tulips, irises, roses, narcissi, hyacinths, fritillaria, forget-me-nots, violas, anemones, ranunculus, peonies, primula, cyclamen and chrysanthemums, which are executed with remarkable precision. Butterflies, dragonflies, and various other insects, painted with an equally meticulous brush, flutter around the floral arrangement that takes over the entire panel. A black spider spins its web, and a big may bug crosses the plain wooden table on which the bouquet is displayed in a simple stoneware vase before a diffuse dark background. Light, falling in from the left, is dimly reflected by the glazed surface of the rounded vessel. Small sprigs of wild roses, forget-me-nots, and strawberries, as well as several delicate stray petals of forget-me-nots lay decoratively scattered around its foot.
While creating his ravishing flower pieces, Jan Brueghel the Elder insisted of working directly from nature and often went great distances in order to find rare specimen to include in his compositions. In his correspondence with Cardinal Borromeo, he points out that his latest flower painting would not fail to impress, “not only because it is painted from life but also because of the beauty and rarity of various flowers which are unknown and have never been seen here before: I therefore went to Brussels to portray a few flowers from life which cannot be seen in Antwerp.”
Tulips, originating from the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges in Central Asia, were cultivated by the Turks as early as the eleventh century. The introduction of the tulip to Europe may have happened during the Moorish occupation of Spain, but is generally attributed to Ogier de Busbecq, the ambassador of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, to the Sultan of Turkey, who is known to have sent tulip bulbs from the Ottoman Empire to Vienna in 1554. The flowers soon made their way via European trade routes to Augsburg, Antwerp and Amsterdam. Avidly collected by botanists and wealthy connoisseurs alike, tulips rapidly became a coveted luxury item, and the multi-coloured, vividly striped varieties, whose flame-like streaks are actually the result of a virus infecting the plant, were regarded as particularly desirable. One of the leading experts on tulips during this time and instrumental in introducing the flower to the Low Countries was the botanist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609), who established a botanical garden in Vienna in 1573 and a second one at Leiden University in 1593. It is not known − but entirely possible − that Jan Brueghel and Clusius have crossed paths over their shared interest in botany, and it is likely that Brueghel was familiar with Clusius’ richly illustrated publications.
Irises, of which the present painting contains several varieties, were not new to western Europe during Brueghel’s time, but known and cherished there since antiquity. The large greyish blue, almost black Iris, however, featured so prominently this bouquet, is a rare, exotic specimen. Iris Susiana or ‘Mourning Iris’ is known to have been brought from Constantinople to Vienna in 1573, and an illustration of the striking flower is included in Clusius’ Rariorum Plantarum Historia of 1601.
Jan Brueghel probably consulted botanical publications as sources occasionally, when composing his spectacular flower pieces, although he clearly preferred working from nature. In a letter to Cardinal Borromeo’s agent Ercole Bianchi, the artist points out that his time for creating floral still lifes was limited to the months from April to August. In order to paint each flower ‘from life’, the artists added them to his design as they were in season. His arrangements often include several varieties in one bouquet, which actually blossom at different months of the year − sometimes snowdrops can be seen blooming alongside roses and lilies. Therefore, Jan Brueghel’s floral compositions are absolutely precise and true to nature in detail, but artificial and outright impossible in their entirety.
Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase, dates into the first decade of the 17th century and is among the earliest examples in the genre of pure flower paintings. Jan Brueghel The Elder’s distinctively delicate, spirited brushwork clearly identifies the work as a his own and not a product of his studio or followers. Fascinatingly, several variants of Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva and in private hands. These five versions are not completely identical but subtly differ in format, as well as in choice and placement of some of the depicted flowers.
The present painting has been in the possession of the National Gallery in Prague for 77 years before being restituted to its rightful owners, the heirs of Baron Alphonse Mayer von Rothschild, in 2016. Alphonse Mayer von Rothschild (1878-1942) belonged to the Viennese branch of the famous banking family and maintained estates in in Vienna and Langau in Austria, as well as in Schillersdorf in Silesia (today Czech Republic). A label on the verso of Still Life of Flowers in a Stoneware Vase clearly identifies the painting as belonging to the Schillersdorf inventory, and a matching entry in the castle’s manuscript inventory book locates it in the palace’s North Wing corridor. The classicistic castle was erected in the 1790s by Friedrich von Eichendorff, uncle of the great German Romantic lyricist Joseph von Eichendorff, who spent several years of his youth on the estate. The Rothschild family purchased the castle in 1842 and considerably enlarged its surrounding park that overlooks the Oder river, using it for elegant hunting parties.
During the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, Alphonse von Rothschild and his British wife were able to escape Nazi persecution and settle in the United States. When Czechoslovakia was annexed by the Nazi Germany a year later, the contents of Schillersdorf castle were confiscated and the present painting transferred to the National Gallery in Prague, where it remained on display until recently, although labels on the verso had always clearly marked it as the Rothschild family’s property.
- The Tulipomania” Charles Macka. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, London 1841, chapter 3.
- Crivelli, Giovanni Brueghel pittor fiammingo, o Sue lettere e quadretti esistenti presso l’Ambrosiana, Milan 1868, quoted in Amy Orrock. Bruegel. Defining a Dynasty, London 2017, p.76
- Crevelli 1868, quoted in Amy Orrock.Bruegel. Defining a Dynasty, London 2017, p.79
- pp 217, 218
- Amy Orrock. Bruegel. Defining a Dynasty, London 2017, p.76