03 février 2018

Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg 1593/94 - 1657 Delft), Still life with basket of shells, a plate with fruits and insects

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Lot 14. Balthasar van der Ast (Middelburg 1593/94 - 1657 Delft), Still life with basket of shells, a plate with fruits and insects, signed lower left: B.van der.Ast, oil on panel, 15 1/2  by 23 5/8  in.; 39.5 by 60 cm. Estimate 800,000 — 1,200,000 USD. Lot sold 1,815,000 USD. Photo: Sotheby's.

ProvenanceIn the collection of the family of the present owners since at least circa 1900.

NoteThis recently rediscovered panel is a particularly refined example of Balthasar van der Ast’s mature period and highly distinctive still life compositions. Although renowned as a painter of shells and frequently devoted paintings to their representation, here they are particularly featured elements of the composition. Here he has placed a variety of examples along the stone ledge, so as to display his dexterity in representing a multitude of surfaces and materials. From left to right along the stone ledge: a Cypraea tigris, a Banded marble cone, a Haustellum haustellum and three other cone shell varieties. In the straw basket just above is a Lambis lambis with other conical shells. They are placed alongside a variety of fruits which sit in a blue and white Chinese Wanli porcelain bowl. Van der Ast has taken the greatest care to depict the surface and texture of all the fruits, delighting particularly in the rendition of the bruises and other blemishes of the less ripe fruit. At opposite ends of the composition are a lizard and dragonfly. These classic additions seem to balance the composition, serving as appropriate counterbalances in this carefully orchestrated, yet seemingly casual arrangement.

Although commonplace today, such shells were great rarities in the 17th century and were extremely expensive. Like tulips, they became the subject of intense commercial speculation, and victims of this indulgence were mocked as 'shelpenzotten' or 'shell fools'. Consequently shells, like flowers, came to be seen as emblems of vanitas.  Segal has argued that the shells in Van der Ast's paintings were indeed intended as vanitas symbols.1  This understanding would have been reinforced to the viewer by the juxtaposition of such elements of transience and worldliness, such as the decaying fruit. While it is not clear that such a meaning was intended by this picture, its intimate character certainly meets the contemplative requirements of the vanitas subject. Too few of Van der Ast's paintings are dated to enable us to construct a chronology for small-scale works such as this. Securely dated examples range only from 1617 to 1628.

Fred Meijer, to whom we are grateful for endorsing the attribution, has suggested a dating to the late 1630's.

1. S. Segal, A Prosperous Past,  the Sumptuous Still-Life in the Netherlands 1600-1700, The Hague 1988, pp. 88-89. 

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