Ambrosius Bosschaert, a pioneer in the history of Dutch still-life painting, infused his flower bouquets with a sense of joy. He had an unerring compositional awareness, and delighted in combining a range of flowers with different colors and shapes to create a pleasing and uplifting visual experience. As in this exquisite work, Bosschaert generally arranged his blossoms symmetrically. Here, two spectacular blossoms, a yellow iris and a red-and-white striped tulip, surmount a bouquet that also contains a wide variety of species, among them roses, a blue-and-white columbine, fritillaria, grape hyacinth, lily of the valley, and a sprig of rosemary. A dragonfly alighting on the iris and a butterfly on the cyclamen blossom that rests on the wooden table further enliven his composition.
Bosschaert, who was born in Antwerp, moved to Middelburg after 1587 for religious reasons. Middelburg, a prosperous trading center and the capital of Zeeland, was renowned for its botanical gardens, the most important of which was established in the 1590s by the great botanist Matthias Lobelius. After Lobelius left for England in 1602, his herb garden was transformed into a flower garden, and almost certainly filled with exotic species imported from the Balkan peninsula, the Near and Far East, and the New World. Collectors at this time particularly admired bulbous plants such as the iris, the narcissus, the scarlet lily, the fritillaria, and, above all, the tulip--species whose bright colors and dramatic forms frequently accent early seventeenth-century flower paintings.
Bosschaert, who may have trained with his father, probably began his career depicting rare and exotic flowers in such gardens, perhaps even for the botanist Carolus Clusius. Bosschaert certainly used such drawings to compose his paintings, which often include identical flowers, sometimes depicted in reverse.
Bosschaert's career in Middelburg was extremely successful, both as a painter and as an art dealer. He was also an effective teacher, and was able to ensure that his distinctive style of painting was effectively perpetuated by his talented students, among them his son-in-law Balthasar van der Ast, and his sons Ambrosius the Younger, Johannes, and Abraham. In 1614, Bosschaert left Middelburg and moved to Amsterdam. He remained there only a short while before moving first to Bergen op Zoom (1615), then to Utrecht (1615-1619), and eventually to Breda (1619-1621), where he executed this painting.
Bosschaert's style of flower painting became more naturalistic over time, as he developed techniques for painting petals with soft, velvety textures. He also introduced subtle tonal gradations in the background to enhance the sense of light flooding the image. Although he began to arrange his flowers more informally, often overlapping individual blossoms, he continued to compose symmetrical bouquets surmounted by one or two large flowers, including those that bloom at various times of the year. These bouquets of blossoms that no gardener could have gathered reflected a fundamental theological concept held by both Catholics and Protestants. They believed that the blessings of God's creation were to be found in the extraordinary richness and beauty of the natural world. Thus, while accuracy was important in recording God's individual creations--flowers, insects, and shells--an imaginative melding of beautiful flowers from different seasons of the year celebrated the greatness of his munificence.
Bouquet of Flowers in a Glass Vase occupies a special place in Bosschaert's oeuvre, for its inscription, filling an illusionistic plaque attached to the table's front, offers one of the most moving testaments to the artist's enormous reputation at the time of his death: "C'est l'Angelicq main du gra[n]d Peindre de Flore AMBROSE, renommé jusqu'au Riuage Mort" (It is the angelic hand of the great painter of flowers, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of death).
(Text by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)