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Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Flowers in a Ceramic Vase

'Flower Brueghel' was another of Brueghel's nicknames, because he was particularly known for his flower pieces such as this one. Brueghel was among the first generation of artists in the Netherlands to paint flower pictures, which formed a new genre at this time.

The flowers are rendered with an almost scientific precision. Each flower is shown off to its best advantage with hardly any overlap, and many are shown at different angles. Small flowers, such as forget-me-nots, narcissuses and roses, are at the bottom of the ingeniously arranged bouquet, while larger flowers such as tulips, cornflowers, peonies and guelder roses occupy the centre. Large flowers, such as white lilies and blue irises, crown the summit of the bouquet.

Although each individual flower is painted with such meticulous precision that it appears real, such a bouquet could never have existed in Brueghel's time as it is comprised of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. Indeed, we know from his letters that he travelled to make drawings of flowers that were not available in Antwerp, so that he could paint them into his bouquets. Flowers were precious, costly commodities in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century (remember the tulip craze!) and only the well-to-do would be able to afford - and have the means to obtain - a bouquet of fresh cut flowers of this size. Owning an exquisitely painted bouquet such as this one was a highly-prized alternative to the real thing, and the only way to bring such a variety of flowers together at all.

In addition to their beauty, such pictures probably carried a moral dimension as well. The ephemeral nature of cut flowers, which soon wilt and die, would have reminded contemporary viewers that human life is equally transient.

The vase is decorated with motifs in relief. The two cartouches - separated by a fantastic figure - show Amphitrite, a sea goddess from Greek mythology, on the left, and Ceres, the Roman corn goddess, on the right. In many allegorical representations of the four elements - such as the picture by Brueghel featured here - they are used to symbolise water and earth respectively. We can assume that the other two cartouches on that part of the vase that we cannot see show Vulcan, who was associated with fire, and Apollo, who - as we have just seen - appears in Brueghel's Allegory of Air.

It has been suggested that Brueghel's son, Jan II Brueghel, may have collaborated with his father on this picture.

Rubens and Brueghel: Friends and Collaborators

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Flowers in a Ceramic Vase, c.1620

Jan Brueghel (Koninklijk Museum, Antwerpen)

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