Still Life with Flowers in a Wan-Li vase by Ambrosius Bosschaert is a classic example of the subtle yet evocative effect of Dutch still-life painting, as the meticulous brushstrokes reveal layers of meaning pertinent to the time. Bosschaert was a respectable floral painter and art dealer, whose work was usually done in oil on small copper plates. This particular work is done with a degree of perfection that seems staged and out of reach, possibly referring to the exorbitant price tag of this bouquet and Chinese vase. During this time, tulips sold for than most people’s annual income, and artists both celebrated and reproached this kind of transient luxury.
The tulip craze was as ephemeral as the flower itself, and perhaps paintings such as Still Life with Flowers by Hans Bollognier serve as a reminder us of the price of such extravagance. The whole structure of the bouquet, as the vase overflows with the most expensive flowers only to be surrounded by tiny creatures symbolizing decay, seems to mirror the decline of the trade itself. These vanitas paintings could include more direct elements such as skulls, or simply a drooping flower, but they all had a poignant message behind seemingly quiet arrangements.
Armchair, 3rd quarter 17th c. Walnut, upholstered with tapestry • Tulip photo by Katrina • Flower pyramid ca. 1690–1720, by unknown artist