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Vase of Flowers in a Niche

© 2005 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

Dutch painting

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Van Huysum employs here the traditional motifs of flower painting, but carries them to a pitch of brightly colored and joyfully assymetrical decorative opulence. The different varietes of flowers are depicted full-blown, with great care for naturalistic detail. The spirit of the painting can be compared to that of a vanitas: the beauty of these flowers will soon fade, the dewdrops symbolize the ephemerality of life, the flies rare a reminder of the imminence of decay.

A keenness of vision worthy of a herbarium

Van Huysum employs here the traditional motifs of flower painting. Presentating a floral composition in a niche creates a "trompe-l'oeil" effect, as though the picture space really were receding into the wall. Along with this illusionist intention, there is the naturalistic fidelity so dear to Northern artists. The flowers are rendered with a visual acuity worthy of a herbarium, albeit a highly decorative one. Each of the different species has its distinct qualities: the bluish corollas of the little morning glories; the tinkling clusters of the bluebells; the ample, blood-red sumptuousness of a peony; the fragility of the poppy; the mannered, two-tone beauty of the tulip, the slenderness of the carnation, and the silky softness of white roses.

A floral vanitas

Behind the decorative abundance lies a hidden moral. There is no need, however, to look for the symbolism of each of the species depicted here. Though the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries commonly attached a specific meaning to individual plants, this became much rarer from the seventeenth century on. The bouquet as a whole should be considered as a warning against the transience of life, in the spirit of a vanitas. The painter mingles flowers associated with life, such as the rose, the carnation, and the morning glory, with the bluebell and the narcissus, symbolizing death, and the peony evoking everlasting sleep. Most of these flowers are full-blown, and their beauty will fade in a matter of hours. Their inescapably finite nature is illustrated by the peony: Van Huysum juxtaposes a bud about to open, a straggling, overblown bloom, and the poor heart of the plant that has shed its finery of petals. The leaves are spangled with dewdrops, underlining the fleetingness of this life. The presence of the insects, heightening the "trompe-l'oeil" effect, has a double meaning. While the butterflies, symbols of the soul, embody the life cycle, the flies stress corruption and the imminence of decay. This denunciation of the vanity of earthly pleasures should encourage us to lead a good and just life, the promise of eternity.

Decorative virtuosity

Van Huysum was an artistic virtuoso who painted numerous flower pieces. He preferred this kind of extraordinary vegetable profusion, with its lavish decoratve display, to the finely sheened, rigorous, and almost geometric compositions of an intimist such as Ambrosius Bosschaert. His art expands upon the works of such predecessors in a baroque upsurge of joyful asymmetry and bright color. The stems reach out in all directions, shattering the arrangement of the flowers, the sheer accumulation of which almost makes us forget the existence of the vase, hidden away beneath the foliage and hard put to contain them. A touching paradox is enshrined in these plants, which seem to want to spill from their niche in a final burst of life that presages their end.


- FOUCART Jacques, Catalogue des peintures flamandes et hollandaises du musée du Louvre, Paris, Gallimard/Musée du Louvre éditions, 2009, p. 318

- TAPIE Alain, Le Sens caché des fleurs : symbolique & botanique dans la peinture du XVIIe siècle, Adam Biro, 1997.

Technical description

  • Jan van HUYSUM (Amsterdam, 1682 - Amsterdam, 1749)

    Vase of Flowers in a Niche

    c. 1720-40

  • H. 0.80 m; W. 0.61 m

  • Bequest of Léon Moreaux, 1891 , 1891

    R.F. 708

  • Paintings

    Richelieu wing
    2nd floor
    Flanders and Holland, first half of the 18th century
    Room 859

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