FORT WORTH—The Kimbell Art Museum announced today the acquisition of a major painting by Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629), one of the founders of flower painting in the Netherlands. Vase of Flowers with a Curtain, dated 1615, is one of the artist’s largest known flower paintings, measuring 43 ¼ x 29 ¼ inches (109.8 x 74.5 cm). De Gheyn never sold it and seems to have kept it in his studio as a showpiece—to demonstrate his skills in this relatively novel artistic genre. 

Scholars have long recognized Vase of Flowers with a Curtain as a landmark in the history of flower painting even though it was a “lost” work, kept in a British private collection since 1924, never exhibited in public, and known only in the form of old, black-and-white reproductions. Its reappearance and acquisition by a museum is a significant event in the study of Dutch art. The work adds an important new dimension to the Kimbell’s collection, which hitherto lacked an example of Dutch flower painting or still life.

Commented Malcolm Warner, acting director of the Kimbell: “At any given moment there are many fine 17th-century Dutch flower paintings on the art market, most of which represent this particular kind of art perfectly well. The level of skill among its practitioners was so great that frankly it would be difficult to find a bad example. But for the Kimbell’s collection we were looking for one that was not only technically brilliant and representative of the genre but also quite outstanding in some way—a ‘destination’ piece. Highly unusual and maybe even unique in scale for this early date, and remarkable too for its grandeur and theatricality (note the touch of illusionistic showmanship in the painting of the green curtains), the De Gheyn was our answer.” 

With much of its vibrant detail obscured under a yellowed and uneven varnish, the painting is currently in need of conservation treatment. This will be carried out over the next three or four months by chief conservator Claire Barry and her staff in the Kimbell’s conservation studio. Most museums prefer to acquire paintings in such an “untouched” state rather than cleaned for the market, trusting in their ability to see through superficial imperfections—and of course in the expertise of their own conservators. Fortunately, the De Gheyn has never fallen victim to overcleaning in the past and retains its thin glazes and fine details, as well as a clear signature and date. Its appearance will improve dramatically when the offending varnish is removed. The Kimbell will put the work on display in its galleries in July.

Jacob de Gheyn II

Jacob de Gheyn was one of the most exceptional draftsmen and printmakers of his generation and admired for his invention and range of subjects.  He is also considered one of the fathers of flower painting in the Netherlands.  Before turning to flower painting, De Gheyn trained in Haarlem, serving the great painter and printmaker Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617).  Goltzius was instrumental in teaching De Gheyn the art of drawing, and De Gheyn quickly proved himself a serious rival to his slightly older master—especially in the field of printmaking.  This all changed in 1595, however, when De Gheyn married the wealthy Eva Stalpaert van der Wiele.  She granted him financial security as well as important connections to the Dutch aristocracy.  In consequence, he gradually gave up printmaking, focusing on the more dignified profession of painting.  The couple was in Leiden between 1596 and 1601 and had moved definitively to The Hague by 1603. 

As a painter, De Gheyn left a very small œuvre.  Fewer than fifty paintings by him are known or documented, and of these, twenty-some survive today.  Among the survivors is his Vanitas Still Life (1603) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  It is widely considered the first vanitas still life in Netherlandish art.  He also painted religious, historical, and mythological subjects.  Some of his pictures were commissioned by members of the House of Orange Nassau, including Prince Maurits of Orange and Prince Frederik Hendrik.

De Gheyn as Flower Painter

While living in Leiden during the late 1590s, De Gheyn met the French botanist Charles de l’Écluse (1526-1609), known as Carolus Clusius, who was director of the botanical gardens in Leiden.  Clusius was one of the first naturalists to study flowers, and it was undoubtedly because of his influence that De Gheyn became attracted to the challenges of depicting flowers.  His friend Karel van Mander (1548-1606) also relates that, having trained mainly in the monochromatic techniques of drawing and printmaking, De Gheyn appreciated flower painting because it gave him good practice in painting in colors.  

De Gheyn’s earliest independent flower paintings were small and on copper.  Van Mander describes “a little pot of flowers from life . . . very precisely executed” that De Gheyn sold to the Amsterdam collector Hendrick van Os.  This was reportedly De Gheyn’s first work in oil and, “for a first effort,” writes Van Mander, “wondrous.”  In 1604, De Gheyn produced “a larger pot of flowers” that was sent to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II.  This was accompanied by an album of flowers, insects, and animals prepared by De Gheyn that survives in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris.  That De Gheyn was one of the most sought-after flower painters of his time is most firmly established by the actions of the Dutch parliament.  In 1606, when the French queen, Marie de’ Medici, visited the Dutch Republic, the Dutch parliament could think of no better present for her than one of De Gheyn’s flower paintings, paying the extraordinary sum of 600 guilders.

Only a handful of flower paintings by De Gheyn can be identified today.  Two small works on copper, datable to 1602/4, can be linked to the album purchased by Rudolf II: Vase of Flowers (formerly Brian Koetser Gallery, now untraced) and Still Life with Flowers (collection of Teresa Heinz).  More ambitious in scale are the floral paintings in the Mauritshuis, The Hague (1612), and in the De Villeneuve Collection (1613).  To these can be added the present painting of 1615.  Another panel, slightly larger in scale, with an asymmetrical arrangement of flowers in a glass vase and a swathe of drapery—possibly owned by Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Prince Frederik Hendrik, and dating to the 1620s—was last traced to a Dutch private collection; its present whereabouts are unknown. 

Vase of Flowers with a Curtain

Vase of Flowers with a Curtain is an exceptionally large flower painting and seems to have held a great personal interest for De Gheyn.  He may have produced it on commission, but it is more likely that he conceived it as a demonstration piece, something to advertise his impressive achievements in the field of flower painting.  Accordingly, he probably kept the painting with him until his death, bequeathing it to his son, Jacques De Gheyn III.  It is known that De Gheyn III owned an impressive flower painting by his father.  One rich collector tried to buy it for the amazing amount of a thousand florins.  The painting is described in the son’s will as “the large vase of flowers surmounted by lilies, painted by the father.”  With no better candidates for this painting than Vase of Flowers with a Curtain, it is widely accepted as the one owned by the son.

The painting is not only remarkable for its size but also for other reasons.  The curtain is a novel and dramatic element.  It adds the illusion of depth to the scene and, because some pictures were actually hidden behind curtains at this date, must have been intended as an illusionistic trick.  Further optical deception is suggested by the flowers themselves, which are painted with the kind of scientific exactitude that De Gheyn must have learned from his botanist friend Clusius.  It is important to bear in mind, however, that De Gheyn was happy to sacrifice certain elements of reality in order to achieve a more exciting composition: The vase is implausibly small, and the arrangement is implausibly tall.  It is possible that De Gheyn meant to convey a message through the flowers.  Those that appear to be withering may suggest the transience of life.  In any case, the painting celebrates the wonders of nature.

In his efforts to establish flower painting as an independent genre, De Gheyn was joined at the beginning of the seventeenth century by three notable Netherlandish artists: Ambrosius Bosschaert I (1543–1614), Jan Brueghel I (1568–1625), and Roelandt Savery (1576–1639).  There is no apparent link between any of these four artists, and it is generally agreed that they were all producing flower paintings independent of one another.  Bosschaert, Brueghel, and Savery were fairly consistent as flower painters.  Their flower paintings are usually very intimate and sometimes painted on copper.  De Gheyn was one of the earliest flower painters to break from this relatively modest format.  With Vase of Flowers with a Curtain, he showed that flower painting offered more exciting possibilities.  The work both acknowledges the birth of the genre with its minutely rendered details and announces the future of the genre with its impressive size and theatrical curtain.