Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Still-life of flowers in a glass vase 1680s

Simon Verelst (16441721)

Still-life of flowers in a glass vase, Simon Verelst
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 25 inches 76.2 x 63.5 cm
Simon Verelst, known to posterity as ''the God of flowers'', was considered to be the most accomplished practitioner of that Dutch discipline to be working in London in the later seventeenth century from his arrival in London in 1669 to the advent of Jean Baptiste Monnoyer c.1690.

Compared with that of Monnoyer who espouses the exclusively decorative aspects of flower painting, the work of Verelst reminds us that flower painting had its roots in the vanitas tradition of still-life painting. Paintings such as the present example are certainly to be viewed as a spectacle, an apparently riotous profusion of blooms nonetheless meticulously harmonised for visual effect, but there are also elements intended to provoke more sober reflection, as much as they are intended to amuse. Thus, amid the wealth of roses, tulips and other flowers, we see small touches that appear at first to be indications of the artist's virtuosity. The droplets of water that are painted on the leaves and petals, the fallen petal upon the marble at the right and especially the housefly that is painted with such deceptive realism, as an exercise in trompe l''oeuil, crawling along the prominent leaf in the centre would all delight contemporary audiences as much as now.

The seventeenth century viewer would have been familiar with the classical story of Apelles, Alexander the Great's painter, who depicted a bunch of grapes with such realism that birds swooped at his picture to grab them. The practical joke of realism of this kind, the hope that an observer would be fooled into brushing the insect off the picture for the shadow is contrived to suggest as much the fly resting upon the canvas as it is to place it within the world of the picture is never far from the painter's intention. But there is a weightier message too: the fly, like the fallen petal, represents the intrusion of decay and, therefore, of death into the brief mortal existence. Equally the shadow that falls across the marble ledge in two places suggests both the illusionistic reality of the flowers above it that might have cast the shadow as well as the impending shadow of mortality.

This iconongraphic echo would not, however, blight the enjoyment of a painting so otherwise sensual. The painting is an assemblage of prestigious commodities, whose different textures and visual qualities are simulated with magnificent virtuosity. The overriding theme of the painting remains wealth and abundance, from the tulips that are placed among the roses, to the costly glass vase and pink marble ledge on which it is placed.

Samuel Pepys records a visit to Verelst's studio on April 11th 1669, when the painter was newly arrived in London and was a friend of Jan Looten, a minor Dutch painter who had

earlier settled in London. Pepys was unimpressed by Looten''s talent, but was directed by him to:
''a Dutchman newly come over, one Everelst, who took us to his lodging cloe by and did show us a little flower=pot of his doing, the finest thing that I ever think I saw in my life the drops of dew hanging on the leaves, so as I was forced again and again to put my finger to it to see whether my eyes were deceived or no. He doth ask 70l for it; I had the vanity to bid him 20l but a better picture I never saw in my whole life, and it is worth going twenty miles too see.'' (Pepys Diary IX pp.514 515).

Through the patronage of the Dukes of York and Buckingham, Verelst gained enormous popularity for his execution of works that were plainly their own advertisement. Through the encouragement of the same patrons he also turned his hand to portrait painting, producing paintings which invariably featured elements of his characteristic flower painting (such as his portrait of Mary of Modena, formerly with Historical Portraits. London). Towards the end of his life Verelst began to suffer from increasing bouts of insanity which was reflected in his painting flowers on a gigantic scale, and he is known to have been incarcerated on several occasions.

Verelst was born in the Hague and trained with his elder brother Harman (c.1643 1702) in the studio of his father, the portrait painter Peter Verelst.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.