Jan van Huysum, Dutch (1682 - 1749)

Van Huysum was an artistic virtuoso who painted numerous flower pieces. He preferred this kind of extraordinary vegetable profusion, with its lavish decoratve display, to the finely sheened, rigorous, and almost geometric compositions of an intimist such as Ambrosius Bosschaert. His art expands upon the works of such predecessors in a baroque upsurge of joyful asymmetry and bright color. The stems reach out in all directions, shattering the arrangement of the flowers, the sheer accumulation of which almost makes us forget the existence of the vase, hidden away beneath the foliage and hard put to contain them. A touching paradox is enshrined in these plants, which seem to want to spill from their niche in a final burst of life that presages their end.

Van Huysum employs the traditional motifs of flower painting. Presentating a floral composition in a niche creates a "trompe-l'oeil" effect, as though the picture space really were receding into the wall. Along with this illusionist intention, there is the naturalistic fidelity so dear to Northern artists. The flowers are rendered with a visual acuity worthy of a herbarium, albeit a highly decorative one. Each of the different species has its distinct qualities: the bluish corollas of the little morning glories; the tinkling clusters of the bluebells; the ample, blood-red sumptuousness of a peony; the fragility of the poppy; the mannered, two-tone beauty of the tulip, the slenderness of the carnation, and the silky softness of white roses.

Unlike most Dutch still life specialists, Jan van Huysum insisted on working out the details of his paintings from close study of the world around him. He once wrote a patron to explain that her painting would be delayed a year because, unable to obtain a real yellow rose, he could not finish the picture. Called by his contemporaries "the phoenix of all flower painters," Van Huysum learned his craft from his father. He lived in Amsterdam his whole life and focused on flower pictures, though he also painted some landscapes and mythological scenes. Van Huysum was also a prolific draftsman whose drawings served as both preliminary studies and finished works.

The profuse bouquets that won Van Huysum an international reputation included flowers from all seasons, arranged with elegance and seeming spontaneity in various states of bloom and demise. Eager collectors often paid more than a thousand guilders for them. He intended to instruct as well as delight. While viewers could contemplate the transience of flowers, their beauty was also a call to faith, as he pointed out by inscribing this Bible verse on a flower jar: "Consider the lilies of the field, Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

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