Still Life of Flowers and Fruit, c. 1715
Jan van Huysum, Dutch, 1682–1749
Oil on wood
Image: 31 1/8 × 23 3/8 in. (79.1 × 59.4 cm) Frame: 40 1/2 × 33 1/4 × 2 in. (102.9 × 84.5 × 5.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund and the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Still Life of Flowers and Fruit
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Born in Amsterdam, Jan van Huysum was trained by his father—Justus the Elder, himself a notable artist—to paint the most popular themes in Dutch art: fruit, flowers, and landscapes. Van Huysum gained an enormous international reputation and an illustrious clientele that included the kings of Poland and Prussia. He was notoriously secretive and fearful that others would steal his methods—not without reason, as his work was often copied and his name frequently forged.
In this superb still life, a profusion of flowers overflows its stone vase and reaches beyond a ledge toward the viewer. Woven in and out of the densely packed bouquet of roses, morning glories, hyacinths, auriculas, and narcissi are the rhythmically flowing stems and blossoms of tulips, poppies, and carnations. The glistening grapes add to the sense of abundance, while a snail and insects animate the composition. On the vase’s pedestal, Huysum added his signature and an inscription listing some of the flowers included in the painting.
Van Huysum also integrated symbolism into his fl oral compositions. The blossoms already have begun to wilt, suggesting the fragility of flowers and the shortness of life. The insects and dewdrops on the petals also allude to the theme of vanitas, the transience of beauty and earthly pleasures and the inevitability of death. Even the cherubs adorning the vase are engaged in drinking and dancing, another reference to the fleeting pleasures of earthly life.
Van Huysum’s work is distinguished by his mastery of illusionistic effects. Faithful to extreme standards of realism, the artist incorporated such minute details as the veins of individual petals. Subtle shadows make the insects in the painting appear to be detached from the canvas. Tiny droplets of water realistically reflect the surrounding color. The strong contrast of light against dark adds depth and drama. Despite the apparent realism of this work, the composition is intrinsically artificial. The flowers depicted did not all bloom at the same time of year. Van Huysum often painted the yellow cabbage rose, a cultivated flower that bloomed only occasionally, delaying the completion of many works for years.
Scientific advancements in optical devices, such as magnifying and telescopic lenses, had enhanced the visual accuracy of artists. Van Huysum may have looked through a lens to optimize his precise and highly detailed work. His mastery of technique is evidenced by the fact that his work today shows very little surface aging.
Robust trading with the Americas and the Far East fueled the Dutch economy. Works of art, once restricted to the church and the nobility, were now in the hands of a middle class made rich by trade. These people wanted to demonstrate their growing wealth and their national pride. Popular subjects in Dutch art reflected not only the landscape, but also the tastes of the time, including a passion for cultivating glorious flowers. As a result, the mid-17th century saw a rebirth of still-life painting, a genre that previously had appeared only in the art of ancient Rome.
- Make a list of all the objects in this painting. Look closely; there might be more than you think!
- Try to describe Van Huysum’s style. Consider words like realistic, dramatic, painterly, graceful, aggressive… Be sure to say which parts of the painting make you choose the words you choose.
- Try to put yourself in Van Huysum’s shoes. What kinds of brushes do you use? How many colors of paint do you mix? How long does this painting take you to complete?
- What about this painting is natural? What do you mean when you call something “natural”?
- What about this painting might be unnatural?
- Think about the list of objects in this painting. Do you have any associations or connotations with any of them? What do you think they might symbolize in this painting?
- Van Huysum picked his flowers for their beauty, not for their compatibility with each other: very few of these flowers bloom at the same times. Sometimes, he would delay a painting’s completion for months to wait for a certain flower to bloom. Knowing that, does this seem like a natural or unnatural image to you? Why or why not?
- Where might you think this painting belongs? Who might it belong to? Consider that at the time this work was painted, the Dutch middle class was rapidly growing in size and wealth.
- What do you think the owner of this painting’s relationship to the natural world might have been?
- Synthesize all of your knowledge to tell this painting’s life story. Who can you imagine commissioned it and owned it? What might their relationship to nature be? What must it have been like to paint this painting?
• Use Still Life with Flowers and Fruit as the basis for a math lesson, estimating percentages for various details. What percentage of flowers are red? What percentage of flowers appear in shadow? What percentage of the painting consists of fruit? What percentage consists of insects?
• Consider the historical context of this still life. Using a map of Europe, locate Holland and Amsterdam. Research exports and imports during the 18th century. Note the items that van Huysum included in Still Life with Flowers and Fruit. How do you think he had access to these foreign goods? From where might the vase have come? What about the exotic flowers?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.