BRUEGHEL, Jan the Elder
(b. ca. 1568, Bruxelles, d. 1625, Antwerpen)

Still-Life with Garland of Flowers and Golden Tazza

1618
Oil on wood, 47,5 x 52,5 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Jan Brueghel the Elder, the youngest son of the world-famous painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder and court painter to the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, truly merited his nickname of "Velvet Brueghel". The precision and virtuosity of his still-lifes are superbly illustrated by the present work with its striking and radiant enamel-like colours. This extremely elegant little panel, which exists in several versions, can probably be counted as one of the jewels of 17th century painting. Against a chased silver-gilt tazza or drinking bowl leans a wreath of spring and summer flowers, made up of carnations, roses, anemones, periwinkles, turban buttercups, lilies of the valley, forget-me-nots and hawthorns, as well as tulips and African marigolds, newly introduced into the Netherlands.

From his correspondence we know that Jan Brueghel worked mostly from nature and that such compositions cost him a great deal of effort, because of his concern to execute them with such precision and devotion. On the table lies a jewel box containing a gold ring, coins, a pearl necklace and two identical golden bracelets set with agates. In those days women mostly wore the same bracelets on both wrists. Alongside the box we can make out another three rings set with diamonds, and a pendant with enamel insets, precious stones and tear-shaped pearls. The golden pearl hairpin to the left of the tazza is an ornament that appears only in the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. In most cases this pin is placed in the hair next to the head covering. On the marriage day it changes side from left to right, or right to left, depending on the region. The presence of the hairpin and the pearl necklace, pointing to the immaculate marital morality of the wearer, suggests that the panel can perhaps be interpreted as an allegory of marriage.

An innovative feature in this still-life is the use of diagonals. Not only the wreath, but also the jewels and the jewel case lie obliquely on the table, in order to produce a stronger effect of depth. Here wealth symbolises beauty. Both the flowers and the jewels stand out brightly against the neutral background. Brueghel paints with equal affection the humble white carnation and the baroque pendant next to it.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 7 minutes):
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, ballet suite, op. 71, Waltz of the Flowers