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Still Life with Flowers, oil on panel, 42 1/2 by 30 inches

Published July 31, 2005

[Image from the Museum of Fine Arts
Interactive: A closer look

Pretty, isn't it?

That said, we often move on, observing a still life less closely than other kinds of art, thinking it requires no deeper reading. Consider Still Life with Flowers, part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. John Schloder, its director, finds the work fascinating not only for its visual appeal but also because it's a subtle allegory of human mortality. And there's more. Like many unsigned paintings, it bears the intrigue of a whodunit.


The painting is attributed to Jan Brueghel the Younger, but no one can say with absolute certainty that he is its creator. Jan was part of a four-generation dynasty of Flemish painters that began with his grandfather, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-1569) (who didn't use the "h" in his last name). Pieter had several sons who also became painters, including Pieter II and Jan the Elder (1568-1625), known as Velvet Brueghel because of his beautifully textured floral and landscape paintings. Still Life with Flowers was thought for many years to be his work. Scholars now think it came from the hand of his son, Jan II (1601-1678) because it has his more fluid, looser style. Jan II was a very popular painter in his time, taking over the family studio after his father and several siblings died in a plague epidemic in 1625; Jan the Younger was in Italy and escaped infection. Three of Jan II's sons became painters.


For centuries art was mostly unsigned. During medieval times, religious paintings were created to tell biblical stories and glorify God; taking credit would have been unacceptable egotism. During the Renaissance, painters began to be respected as artists rather than craftsmen but their work is attributed mostly through historical records and documentation.

Another factor was the workshop system. A well-known artist would provide the vision and conception of a painting and contribute key elements, but other adroit artists, working in the same style, would paint parts of it. Jan Brueghel the Elder, for example, regularly collaborated with Peter Paul Rubens.

Sophisticated scanning techniques today often help in attributing art to a time or even a specific artist. But scholars still rely on their experience and familiarity with an artist's work and style in making attributions, which are sometimes little more than highly educated guesses.


Examples of floral paintings are found as far back as early Greece, but in early European art, flowers were peripheral symbols, used as coded messages in church paintings for an illiterate public. By the 16th century, a more secular, affluent society wanted decorative art for their homes, so lush arrangements of flowers became popular, especially in northern Europe. They, along with arrangements of vegetables and decorative objects, became known as still lifes. But they were meant to be more than beautiful. A new interest in natural sciences required they be botanically correct. A specific kind of still life, called a vanitas, pictured obvious reminders, such as a human skull, that life is brief. This painting uses flowers in various stages of bloom to convey the message that everything living is in the process of dying.


For all its realism, this painting is pure fantasy. The flowers here, which bloom in different seasons (and with no overnight UPS shipments from South America), would have been unavailable at the same time. Also, the height of the tallest flowers in the arrangement is fakery; few flowers have such long stems. Brueghel would have used botanical studies for reference. Flowers for centuries had individual meanings attached to them - love, fidelity, chastity, for example, but probably these were used not for their individual symbolism but their exoticism, which bespeaks wealth and luxury. In using so many kinds of flowers, Brueghel is alluding to "the eternal divinity of nature," wrote one scholar, along with the temporality of individual life.

* * *

The tulips have individual notoriety, though. First imported to northern Europe in the 16th century, they became an obsession for collectors and a hot commodity for speculators; some rare bulbs sold for $100,000 at the height of the Tulipomania boom in 1633. The tulip market crashed in 1637 and many fortunes were lost.

* * *

Even though this is a still life painting, "it's anything but still," says museum director John Schloder. He counts five butterflies, symbols of Christ's Resurrection and life after death, tucked among the blossoms.

* * *

The vase reinforces the allegory of life and death. Ceres and Amphitrite, goddesses of the earth and sea, are pictured. The central figure is probably a visitor from the underworld. The vase was a stock prop in the Brueghel family workshop; Jan the Elder used it several times, which is one reason he was credited with this painting.

* * *

The black background was an innovation, popular because it added drama to a scene and made images stand out.


Still Life with Flowers is painted on wood, which in 17th century Europe was cheaper than linen and other cloth. It's larger than many panel paintings of its time; three oak boards were joined together, and over time the wood has warped. Look closely and you will see the two seams running from top to bottom. Artists sold a lot of their work at outdoor fairs, precursors to our Mainsail and Gasparilla art festivals. But Schloder speculates that this was a commission from an affluent patron because an artist would be reluctant to spend the time and money on a large painting with no guarantee that it would sell.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

[Last modified July 28, 2005, 12:21:20]

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