Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg 1593 - Delft 1657)
A still life of fruit in a basket upon a stone ledge
Balthasar van der Ast was born in Middelburg in 1593 or 1594, where he was trained from c.1610 in the studio of his twenty-year older brother-in-law and guardian Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621).3 He appears to have taken over the position of leading painter of still lifes of flowers and fruit in the North Netherlands soon after Bosschaert’s death in 1621. In the 1620s and 1630s, van der Ast's domicile Utrecht was the main Dutch centre of flower painting; besides van der Ast, among others, Roelant Savery, Johannes Baers, Jacob Marrel and Bosschaert’s sons worked there. Van der Ast himself moved to Delft in 1632 and married there in the following year. He died in Delft in 1657.
Van der Ast was a highly prolific artist: the number of his known paintings well exceeds a 150. They range from large canvasses to tiny coppers and panels, all usually executed in fine detail. A substantial portion of his oeuvre originated during the first half of the 1620s. This is also the best documented period of his activity, since he rather consistently signed and dated his works then, a habit he gradually gave up in the following years, where dating is concerned.
Floral bouquets in a vase and still lifes of fruit were van der Ast’s most favoured subjects, which he adopted from Bosschaert the Elder. Balthasar van der Ast’s earliest known dated paintings, from 1617 and 1618, are still lifes of fruit on Wanli porcelain dishes.4 Already early on, he also painted baskets of flowers, following Bosschaert’s example quite closely.5 In 1621, he first introduced a basket of fruit into one of his compositions (fig. 1).6 For much of his career, but mostly during the 1620s, such baskets appear as separate motifs, but also in combination with other items, such as porcelain or pewter dishes, as in figures 1 and 2, the latter from 1622, and together with a vase of flowers or in more elaborate compositions (fig. 3).7 In 1623, he painted a series of small panels with a rather complex ‘stepped’ composition, including similar baskets of fruit (fig. 4).8 These works illustrate that in 1623, Balthasar van der Ast was extensively elaborating on the theme of the basket of fruit, in various settings. It is interesting to note that he typically had some trouble in rendering the lower edge of the basket properly. As in this painting, it often seems to tend to lift off the table to the right. The present painting, in comparison with other such works from the period, is rather sober in its choice of motifs. Where van der Ast usually would include some shells and one or two flowers on the ledge, here he seems to have left them out deliberately, perhaps at the request of a patron, who may have desired a pure fruit piece. He has enlivened his composition with a lizard, a dragonfly and a fly, however. Most prominent is the relatively large melon in the basket, probably a type of watermelon. This kind of melon is not depicted often in Dutch paintings. We mostly encounter variants of the muskmelon, either with a netted skin, or smooth. Melons in general were imported from southern Europe, and were considered a luxury food. In the same year as this painting, 1623, Balthasar van der Ast produced a much smaller still life, also with a similarly prominent melon of the same type, this time placed among other fruits in a large Wanli porcelain bowl. That painting is now in the collection of the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (fig. 5).9 It is interesting to note that the quince in fig. 2 is very similar to the one in this painting, and also has a bluebottle sitting on it.
Although a perfectly convincing and seemingly realistic image, van der Ast must have composed this painting, like all of his still lifes, with the aid of preparative studies of individual motifs: several species rendered here could not be seen together in the same season, and must have been based on individual studies.
Still lifes such as this one most of all appear to celebrate the quality and versatility of God’s creation, which is here for mankind to praise and enjoy. Also, through the brief period before fruit begins to rot, the artist also reminds the viewer of his own transitory existence. Some of the fruits already have some stains and blemishes. Even hard stone, as shown in the ledge, will start to crack at some point. Most important, however, for contemporary viewers as well as for us today, is the illusionism with which the artist presents a seemingly realistic arrangement of fruit, a basket and some creatures.
- Sale London, Christie’s, 1 April 1966, lot 119, illustrated (measurements given as 27 x 39 in);
- Private collection, Belgium
Certificate by Dr. Fred Meijer