Doesn’t this look like the artist painted a “real” bouquet? Surprise! He didn’t, at least not in the strict sense of the word. I love Dutch art from 16th-17th centuries because it’s so sneaky — the reality portrayed in the paintings is illusory (also, the paintings are just fun!) Even a very wealthy person, much less an artist (even a successful one like van Huysum) couldn’t afford a bouquet like this — the flowers would simply be too expensive. So artists painted imaginary bouquets, juxtaposing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, flowers the artists had never seen (these guys sometimes worked from prints or other paintings) or flowers that were so rare they could only be seen by visitng a specialized botanical garden, as van Huysum did on occasion (there was one in Haarlem).
It’s hard to see all the details (if you want to really zoom in on the digital image, go to the website of London’s National Gallery. It’s worth the time), but do notice the butterflies flitting about among the blossoms, the droop in a few of the flowers and, oh yes the fly! (it’s the little brown speck on the left side of the ledge supporting the vase, above the bird’s nest and below the blue flowers; find the grapes and look slightly above and to their right). A century before, these items would have been intended as a reminder that we, like the flowers and the butterflies, are emphemeral beings, and, like them, will soon disappear. Van Huysum, however, was the last of the great Dutch flower painters and by his time these floral masterpieces were largely cherished for their sheer visual beauty rather than their moral message. For any gardners wandering by my blog — how many different species of flowers can you count? (hint — there are at least twelve!) And, while you’re enjoying the blossoms, notice those adorable little cupids in the relief on the terracotta vase! And the fruit! And the bird’s nest and ……………….