A profusion of flowers, shells, fruit, and living creatures fills a ledge in Balthasar van der Ast’s carefully composed still life. Dutch and Flemish artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were especially admired for their realistic renderings of the colors, textures, and shapes of both animate and inanimate objects. In this painting Van der Ast places most of the elements in distinct spaces, so that each one can be examined more carefully.
The array of objects creates a feast for the eyes, but also reflects the scientific revolution that had taken place in astronomy, natural history, and physics from the 1400s to the 1600s. Amateur naturalists and collectors of curiosities cherished shells from the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean; coveted rare tulips, introduced to Europe from Turkey around 1550; and even kept such exotic creatures as parrots, lizards, and crickets as pets. Trade with the East also brought examples of Asian art and craft to the Netherlands, such as the Chinese blue-and-white Wan-li porcelain vase seen here (enhanced with a gilded base made by a European goldsmith).