Jan Van Huysum: Flower Painter At Houston Museum

The Temptations of Flora: Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), the first large- scale exhibition devoted to Jan van Huysum´s work, opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Van Huysum is renowned for the tremendous realism with which he painted elaborate floral and fruit arrangements, and was said to be the most highly paid Dutch artist of all time.

The exhibition is organized by the Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, Delft, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and is on view at the MFAH´s Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street, through May 20, 2007.

The exhibition provides a comprehensive view of the artist´s lifework, and features approximately 50 of the finest paintings selected from museums and private collections in both Europe and the United States. The centerpiece of the show is the MFAH´s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit, a virtuoso painting that inspired the organization of the exhibition. Although the primary focus is on Van Huysum´s extensive still-life paintings, a selection of his vast production of drawings and a pair of his Italianate landscapes are also on display, representing other facets of his work. Furthermore, Van Huysum´s paintings are complemented by works of his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers; additional artists shown are Willem van Aelst, Jan Davidsz. De Heem, Abraham Mignon, Rachel Ruysch, Jan van Os, and Gerard van Spaendonck.

"Given his unique talent, it is surprising that Van Huysum has never had a solo exhibition before," said MFAH director Dr. Peter C. Marzio. "His skill in composing and accurately depicting floral arrangements is without equal. The Temptations of Flora also includes still-life paintings by Van Huysum´s contemporaries, so that viewers can appreciate his work within a broader context. The MFAH is pleased to give this accomplished artist the long over due attention which he deserves."

No other artist has matched Van Huysum´s technical virtuosity or ability to create luxuriant floral arrangements. He is renowned for the expertise with which he conveyed microscopic information: the veins of individual petals, the filaments of calyxes, glistening water droplets, and meticulously rendered insects. His standards of realism relied in part on his insistence of working from real fruit and flower samples. Two dates are occasionally found on Van Huysum´s works, revealing his wait for the precise, seasonal specimen he had envisioned. His fantastical blending of mixed-seasonal matter creates an atmosphere of impossible excess and wealth, accentuated by the preying insects who feast on the juice and nectar of the bouquets. Vigorous chiaroscuro effects heighten the illusion of reality and emphasize decadent objects in the foreground, while the abundant flora from which they spill gradually fades into the background. At first glance, these arrangements might appear abandoned to disarray, but there is order to the chaos. Typical Rococo forms, like the S-shape and the diagonal, can clearly be identified as compositional schemes that Van Huysum employed around 1720 and thereafter. Such Rococo effects, and his use of a light background and a brighter palette, distinguish his work from his colleagues and helped him reinvigorate interest in the floral-painting genre as a whole. In fact, Van Huysum became known as "the Phoenix of Flower Painters."

"Flower enthusiasts are in for a treat," explained Edgar Peters Bowron, Audrey Jones Beck Curator of European Art. "Within any given Van Huysum painting, experts can recognize numerous floral species. The MFAH´s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit is an especially vivid example of his botanical command. Within this painting alone, roses, morning glories, hyacinths, auriculas, narcissi, tulips, poppies, and carnations can all be identified. This delicious over-abundance inspired European kings to pay fortunes. Today, happily, we can enjoy Van Huysum´s genius simply by strolling through the museum."

Horticulture played a key role in early 18th-century Dutch economy, in part because the novelty of importing or developing floral species fascinated the wealthy and influential upper classes. Speculative trading in bulbs led to the "tulip mania" of the 17th-century, followed by the "hyacinth mania" of the 18th-century, when it was all the rage to own the latest flower in vogue. A single bulb could cost more than an average worker´s annual income, and to possess a collection of such costly flowers symbolized great affluence and high social status. Van Huysum´s clever inclusion of the fashionable tulip or hyacinth within his paintings further served to advance his reputation as a painter of unparalleled talent whose works could only be afforded by the very wealthy, therefore distinguishing his clientele as individuals of exceptionally elevated taste and influence.

Beyond symbolizing social status, however, flowers also carried moral or religious connotations. The symbolic interpretations arose from the medieval belief that Nature revealed a deeper knowledge of God´s creation, especially through the intricacy and beauty of flowers. For example, the opium poppy represented sleep or death, and the downward-facing crown imperial suggested humility. In general, the temporal nature of flowers led viewers to meditate on the brevity of human life and broader metaphysical themes. While people viewing Van Huysum´s work might be inspired to read deep levels of profundity into the floral arrangements, Van Huysum didn´t necessarily intend or encourage such an interpretation. As an artist, the driving force behind his choices in floral arrangements was purely aesthetic. -- www.mfah.org

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