Still Life with Flowers and Butterflies
Flower painting originated in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century, but it became one of the most popular subjects in seventeenth-century Holland and certain artists specialised in this form of still life. Such paintings may have begun as a celebration of Dutch horticulture - an aspect of life in Holland that is still much appreciated today - exemplified at the beginning of the tradition by artists such as Ambrosius Bosschaert, whose compositions are dominated by symmetrically arranged bouquets and amount to a straightforward transcription of reality in a botanical sense. Later in the seventeenth century, however, in the works of Jan Davidsz. de Heem, for example, a more expansive (Baroque) style is adopted with complicated overlapping and spiralling of the different forms. More importantly, other elements enter into the presentation - aspects of illusionism (water, drops of moisture, shells, insects) and various symbolic meanings. Several interpretations are based on religious iconography, with different flowers or signs representing Christ’s Passion or, more generally, as an acknowledgement of the beauty of God’s creation. But when alien elements are depicted - certain insects, snails, dewdrops, a skull - these introduce intimations of mortality or the transitoriness of life.
In this painting by Oosterwyck, first recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of Queen Anne, the glass vase rests on a ledge. Several kinds of rose and an iris are identifiable, together with two butterflies. Resting on the ledge are some rose petals to left and a spray of nasturtiums to right. The artist has here balanced out the meaning inherent within this still life: the rose petals remind the viewer that beauty must die, while the butterflies refer to Christ’s Resurrection.
Signed and dated lower right: 'MARIA VAN OOSTERWYCK ANNO 1686'
Catalogue entry adapted from Enchanting the Eye: Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, London, 2004