All That Glistens
Kortrijk 1576 – 1639 Utrecht
Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Lizard and Insects
oil on copper
10 ¼ x 7 ⅜ inches
26 x 18.3 cm
Roelandt Savery (1576-1639) is perhaps best known for his wooded mountain landscapes with exotic animals, but his rarer flower pieces are among the earliest independent flower paintings in the Netherlands. Between 1603-13, he lived in Prague as court painter for Rudolf II and his successor Emperor Matthias, where he witnessed the flowering of late Renaissance art and science, studying first-hand Rudolf’s menagerie of exotic animals, botanic gardens and cabinet of curiosities. This experience had a decisive impact on Savery’s style and provided raw materials for the rest of his career. Compared to the flower paintings of his contemporary Jan Brueghel the Elder, who had visited Prague in 1604, Savery’s are similarly bright and highly finished, but perhaps more intimate in their sculptural presence.
Dated by Dr. Joanneath Ann Spicer to 1620-25, the present work would have been painted shortly after Savery settled in Utrecht, where he spent the last two decades of his life. As seen in other early examples (Liechtenstein GE 789; fig. 1), it is characteristic for him to depict both wild and cultivated flowers – from a tulip, roses and an iris to forget-me-nots, narcissae and primroses – which until 1550, did not appear in gardens in Europe. Above, there is a dragonfly and below, a lizard and a grasshopper. It can be compared to a similar work dated 1621 (Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. DYCE.4; fig. 2). The grasshopper symbolizes both good and bad luck, with the implication that if the insect is badly treated good luck may turn sour, so it serves as a kind of Vanitas. Lizards also have moral overtones. If trapped, a lizard sheds its tail, allowing it to escape, a metaphor for salvation. Such details were common in Dutch still lives and elevated their status to something beyond the merely decorative, something deserving of contemplation and thought. Such flower pieces were considered objects of wonder of the natural world, part of the bounty of the Creator.
It is equally important to remember that the purely illusionistic quality of paintings like the present work were a lot more compelling to their original audience than today. Now everybody is bombarded by the media with clamorous and insistent visual imagery, but in the 17th century people had less jaded visual appetites and longer attention spans. Samuel Pepys was famously lost in admiration for the way the Dutch artist Simon Verelst had painted a dew drop on a leaf. In addition, such works would have been hung in ill lit houses only visible by candlelight for much of the time, which would have accentuated their relief effect and added to the excitement of viewing them like a discovery. ❖
signed ‘R SAVERY FE’, lower center, on the ledge
James Wyatt, J.P.
London, Christie’s, 25 November 1966, lot 31
with Leonard Koetser, London, acquired from the above sale
with Hal O’Nians, London
Private collection, Europe
New York, Christie’s, 12 January 1996, lot 90
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
London, Leonard Koetser Gallery, Spring Exhibition of Flemish, Dutch and Italian Old Masters, 7 April – 31 May 1967
Kurt J. Müllenmeister, Roelant Savery, Die Gemälde mit Kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Freren, 1988, p. 329, no. 273.
Spring Exhibition of Flemish, Dutch and Italian Old Masters, Leonard Koetser, London, 1967, exh. cat., no. 23.