Early Bloomers

It’s the first of March and spring is in the air in Washington. This morning, with the sun shining and small clouds skittering across a blue sky, it was easier to see a shift in the seasons and warmer days ahead. Soon there’ll be buds shooting off the branches and sharp green blades rising out of the ground, followed by the popping of thousands of colored buds. One poet capturing our sense of the expectation at this time is the English Romantic William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850). Here’s his poem,  A Change in the Year:

It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before,
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.

There is a blessing in the air,
Which seems a sense of joy to yield
To the bare trees, and mountains bare;
And grass in the green field.

In honor of an imminent bursting into floral life is today’s pick, Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (c. 1715) by the Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682 – 1749). Coming from a family of artists (his father and three brothers were also painters), van Huysum established a reputation as the leading still-life painter of his time. This work showcases his virtuoso skills as an artist. It shows a wild and abundant profusion of blooming flowers, reaching and tumbling out of a terra-cotta vase set on a ledge. There is little sense of recession, with the flowers right up against the picture plane, and that foreground muddle of ripe-to-eat peaches and grapes looking set to spill into our world. There are a few ribbon-like leaves and long, tracing tendrils that lace over the bunch, rhythmically whirling the composition into a spin. These sweeping lines bind the work together and lead the eye from bloom to bloom. Although trained by his father, van Huysum learned how to gather this kind of composition from a couple of other Dutch artists, Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606 – 1684) and Willem van Aelst (1626 – 1683).

Jan van Huysum was secretive in his work, so much so that not even his brothers were allowed in his studio, for fear they might see how he purified and applied his colors and achieved such clarity in detail. Looking over this work inch-by-inch, we quickly get a measure of his technical abilities. The analysis of different flower-heads is so close and acute that he has no trouble bringing the look and feel of the plants to life on the canvas. From the light, papery petals of the peonies, to the waxy, falling folds of a tulip, it’s a tour de force in verisimilitude. Here and there, tiny dew drops sit globular and translucent on leaves. Spot too the insects buzzing around, such as flies on the fruit and butterflies skirting at the edges, each one minutely and painstakingly rendered.

Like one of his artistic models Willem van Aelst, van Huysum often painted flowers that don’t all bloom at the same time. So here we have asters, carnations, hollyhocks, hyacinths, irises, poppies, roses and tulips all bundled together. While he did at times work from earlier drawings he’d done, van Huysum seems to have preferred studying flowers from life, spending time each summer in Haarlem, then as now a horticultural center. In fact, in one letter to a patron van Huysum wrote how he couldn’t complete a still-life that included a yellow rose until it blossomed in the early months of the following year. We now know how the artist must have felt, waiting with bated breath for the first unfurling signs of spring.