Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-84) was born in Utrecht, just south of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and became one of the most outstanding still-life painters of his time. His style was so popular he could hardly finish a painting before he was asked to start another.
This was painted at a pivotal time in Dutch History. Following a long and bloody war with Catholic Spain who had ruled for 100 years, the new Republic of the Netherlands gained independence in 1648. This break from the Catholic church saw the Dutch reinvent their own unique national identity with art using genre paintings like still life, seascapes, portraits and scenes of domestic life.
De Heems' minutely painted floral arrangements are crawling with insects, which must have delighted and surprised the collectors for whom these paintings were intended; the closer you look, the more creatures you see! He painted this in the 1660s when there was a growing interest in the natural world, as people set sail to explore and collect specimens from around the world.
Today, flowers from around the world are readily available in a rainbow of colours at supermarkets and florists- but once they were considered priceless rarities and showed a country's wealth and ability to trade outside of its borders. Some of these flowers, tulips in particular, were so expensive that it was cheaper to buy a painting of them than display the real things in your home. Another advantage of a painting is that it will not wilt or die like a real flower. During the ‘Tulip Mania’ boom that peaked between 1633- 37, people were in such a frenzy to buy and sell varieties of brightly coloured tulip bulbs ( originally introduced from Turkey) a single bulb could change hands for 4,400 guilders. Less than half that amount could have bought you several horses and sheep at the time.
As well as being a still life painting , paintings often carried hidden moral messages known as ‘Vanitas’-reminding us that nothing lasts forever. Perhaps in this painting we are reminded that life is delicate and fades like a flower. We can only guess but there may also be a more obvious link to Christianity as the painter has chosen to capture a cross reflected from a window in the clear water vase.
You can find out more about de Heem on ArtUK.org
Flowers in a glass vase by Jan Davidsz. de Heem Dutch, 1606-1684 Oil on wooden panel Height 93.2 cm x width 69.6 cm
Collection record: 1495