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Basket of Fruits Balthasar van der Ast, c. 1625, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Pen and watercolor, British Museum, London

Still-life painting [1] is yet another story and among still-life painters is Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94–1657) who lived and worked during the Golden Age of Dutch painting: the seventeenth century. There is therefore artistic maturity to his paintings. However, given that he was a still-life painter, Balthasar was a pioneer. I should think there were still-life paintings long before Balthasar van der Ast, but still-life paintings were not an independent genre. As a result, many view the seventeenth-century in the Netherlands as both the birthplace of still-life painting and the time and place it reached its pinnacle.

Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Jacopo de’ Barbari

Such is not altogether the case. The cast of this little drama is made up of Dutch artists, but it would appear that we owe the first still-life painting to Jacopo de’ Barbari (c. 1440 – before 1516). Jacopo’s still-life painting represents a dead partridge and gauntlets, pinned against a wall by an arrow.[2]

Jacopo was Italian, but he had met Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528), which induced him to move north in 1500. Jacopo died in the Netherlands, probably at Brussels, at the court of Archduchess Margaret, Philip the Handsome.

The Renaissance: Perspective, Vanishing Point…

As we have seen in other posts, Greek scholars fled the Byzantine Empire in 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks, which marked the beginning of the Renaissance, but the Renaissance did not move north until the sixteenth century, which is when Jacopo was active.  However, the Netherlands had been the “cultural hub” of Europe, in music especially, polyphonic music, and it had also been home to exceptional miniaturists. Painters of the Netherlands must have benefited from notions associated with Greek scholarship, such as reflection on perspectivethe vanishing point, and the Golden Section or Golden Ratio, but they were already accomplished artists.

The Starting Point: Vanitas Vanitatum

Although still-life painting started to flourish during the sixteenth century, i. e. the Renaissance in Northern Europe, its Golden Age was the seventeenth century and early still-life paintings were vanitasObjects depicted in a vanitas are “allegories of mortality:” skulls, candles, and hourglasses. “Combined with flowers and fruits, they symbolized nature’s cycle. They were allegories of death and rebirth.”[3] 

Vanitas by Pieter Claesz, 1625

According to Britannica, “its [vanitas] development until its decline (1650) was centred in Leiden in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, an important seat of Calvinism, which emphasized humanity’s total depravity and advanced a rigid moral code.” The Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas is a central theme in 17th-century French Literature.

Decorative Purposes

However, in the case of Balthasar van der Ast and his students, their still-life paintings were often painted and bought for decorative purposes. These did not feature skulls, candles and hourglasses. There was wealth in the Netherlands, a growing middle-class, and money was spent on purchasing art. Flowers, fruit and grapes were deemed pleasant subjects to look at.

— Still Life with Plums, Cherries and Shells
by Balthasar van der Ast, c. 1628, British Museum 

The Life of Balthasar Van der Ast: Three Periods

The “Bosschaert dynasty”

When his father died, in 1609, Balthasar went to live with his sister Maria who was married to prominent Dutch painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573–1621), Ast was therefore trained by Ambrosius the Elder and when Ambrosius died, Balthasar transmitted the knowledge he had acquired from Ambrosius to train his three sons: Abraham (1606-1683-84), Ambrosius the Younger (1609–1645), Johannes (ca. 1610-1650).


In 1615, the family moved to Utrecht. At the time there were guilds. Baltasar joined the Utrecht Guild of St Luke, thus named because St Luke is the patron of artists. He was influenced by Roelandt Savery (1576–1639), a member of the Guild, but he also influenced others:  Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1683/84 and Bartholomeus Assteyn (Dordrecht 1607, probably Dordrecht 1669/1677).


— Balthasar van der Ast

Temporary Conclusion: Vanitas & Carpe Diem

Van der Ast’s paintings and those of most of his students are not vanitas and often served decorative rather than moralistic purposes: reminders of our mortality. However, flowers, the rose in particularly, have been used to invite humans to enjoy life. Such is the carpe diem.  Horace wrote Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero, or “Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.” But such an Epicurean invitation is like the proverbial coin. It has a reverse side that points to the brevity of life and to all things perishable. In the seventeenth century, life was extremely precarious. Children often died as infants or during childhood. Yet, the Kind is dead, long live the King.

I will provide examples of still-lives. It has become a major genre associated with “genre” painting, or the painting of familiar every day scenes.




[1] “still-life painting”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012
[2] “Jacopo de’ Barbari”Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012

[3] “vanitas”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012

Jan Davidsz de Heem
© Micheline Walker
28 November 2012