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Flowers: Still life and still living

Two IMA staff members – Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow, and Irvin Etienne, horticulturist – look at the IMA’s Flowers in a Glass Vase by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger. Both see beauty and history.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the younger (Dutch, 1609-1645), "Flowers in a Glass Vase," about 1635 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10008

Ambrosius Bosschaert the younger (Dutch, 1609-1645), “Flowers in a Glass Vase,” about 1635
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10008

One of the treasures of the Clowes Collection, Flowers in a Glass Vase  (c. 1630) by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger captures the Dutch passion for still life with impeccable precision. Flower still lifes had begun to appear in the Dutch Republic around 1600 and were highly prized for their ability to preserve the fleeting beauty of the natural world. Ambrosius’s father pioneered the genre in the Dutch city of Middelburg, which contained some of the most comprehensive flower gardens in the land.

In spite of the almost scientific rendering of the blossoms and animals, the artist likely worked from drawn or painted models in his studio. The sand lizard (in the lower left corner), for example, appears in two other paintings (private collection and private collection), and variations of the tulips (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) and nigella (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) also appear in his work. The use of such aides in the studio, however, should not detract from our admiration of the skillful way in which Ambrosius employed them to create a sense of volume in the bouquet. His arrangement of the vibrant pinks and yellows among the most forward extending flowers at the left and center, and his placement in the upper half of the deeper blues and crimsons for the blossoms that recede in the composition, demonstrate his ability to create a “chiaroscuro of hue,” in the words of flower painting specialist Paul Taylor.

Two of the species depicted here had arrived only recently in the Netherlands, which reminds us that the Dutch brought back a variety of exotica from foreign lands. The fritillary had been imported from Turkey in the 1570s, while the tulip – the quintessential Dutch flower today – was introduced about 20 years earlier from Persia via Turkey. The distinctive striping on the tulips, which could range from yellow to red to purple and which was the result of a virus, made the flower so attractive that a veritable “tulipmania” developed in the early 1630s. During this speculation crisis, a single bulb could be sold for as much as 13,000 guilders. That two such flowers appear prominently in Bosschaert’s painting attests to his awareness of their visual and financial worth.

Botanists and collectors of flowers cultivated colorful gardens for study in the 17th century, and they sometimes exchanged “portraits” of individual flowers that were particularly valued. These images may have contributed to the development of the painted bouquet as an independent genre. Here in Indianapolis, we are fortunate to have Bosschaert’s painting in the museum and the beautiful specimens on the grounds to admire!

— Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow

The first thing that strikes me in this painting is the use of flowers that do not bloom at the same time – at least not in this part of the world. The second thing that strikes me is how some of those flowers have changed because of breeding efforts by many people over the centuries while others have changed little. Since this is spring I am going to concentrate on a few that traditionally bloom in spring around these parts.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

One of our great harbingers of the end of winter are snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis. Some years you can find these blooming in February if it is mild. In the worst winters they will start in March. I’ve watched these here at the IMA for over 20 years now and I am still as excited as ever to discover them in bloom. We have large swaths of them in the woods and in the some of the gardens but really just a small clump of two is worth having. Since this is a small bulb and plant

Snowdrops (detail)

Snowdrops (detail)

you can make room for a few no matter what size your garden is. My picture is of the straight species but snowdrop enthusiasts have selected or bred many varieties including doubles and perhaps the most desirable of all: flowers where the little green spots shown below are replaced with yellow spots. I will have a yellow one someday.

 

Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis)

Hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis, bring not only color to the spring landscape but delightful fragrance as well. Over time, the individual flowers have become larger and more tightly packed on the flower stalk. Breeders have developed many colors and double flowered forms. It seems to me these tend to be short lived. Or at least they slowly decline in the garden while I have seen plants along some of our less maintained paths that have survived for decades. I think we may kill them with kindness. As in planting them in a garden bed that gets irrigated in summer. Interesting note in hyacinths are in the same family as another great spring plant – asparagus.

Queen of the Night (left) and Black Hero (right).

Queen of the Night (left) and Black Hero (right).

Tulips. Talk about a flower that has changed over the years! The tulip started as a simple little thing, became a sensation that destroyed fortunes, and still holds a major place in modern gardening. You can still find species types for sale but most of us gravitate to the large wonderfully gaudy hybrids. Other than true blue, just about every color can be found in this group of plants. Many flower forms exist. In addition to the traditional type there are lily-flowered, fringed, and doubles. Here are some “black” tulips in Nonie’s Garden right now. The single ‘Queen of the Night’ and its double form, ‘Black Hero’.

050514_pansies

Johnny jump-ups

Like the tulips, pansies have changed considerably. Unlike the tulip, I don’t think pansies destroyed anybody’s fortune. Again what started as a simple little flower has become a family of flowers that covers almost every color and comes in a plethora of sizes. Whether pansies or violas or Johnny jump-ups, they are all in the genus Viola. Plus there are several perennial and Indiana native species. With most of the plants we buy as spring annuals the dividing line is small flowered plants are sold as violas and the large flowered plants are sold as pansies. All are good plants. Johnny jump-ups have been around forever and you can get them to this day.

Frizzle Sizzle

Frizzle Sizzle

Or if you prefer you can get these Frizzle Sizzle pansies with huge ruffled petals that would do a Scarlet O’Hara gown proud.

Pansies are one of the tough annuals that can handle frost so it is a natural for the spring garden. Breeding has increased the heat tolerance so they last longer and longer. If you plant them in partial shade you may have plants live all summer that put on another big show in fall.

— Irvin Etienne, Horticultural Display Coordinator

Filed under: Art, Art and Nature Park, Greenhouse, History, Horticulture, IMA Staff, Oldfields

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