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Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

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