Look closely: Can you spot the butterfly? Two masterpieces by Jan Van Huysum

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Look closely: Can you spot the butterfly? Two masterpieces by Jan Van Huysum
Jan Van Huysum, Fruit and Flowers in front of a Garden Vase with an Opium Poppy and a Row of Cypresses, 1731-2, Private Collection.

TWICKENHAM.- Strawberry Hill House is presenting two exquisite 18th century masterpieces by one of the most celebrated painters of still life, Dutch artist Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749).

Flowers in a Vase with Crown Imperial and Apple Blossom at the Top and a Statue of Flora (1731-2) and Fruit and Flowers in front of a Garden Vase with an Opium Poppy and a Row of Cypresses (1731-2) are being displayed in public for the first time in ten years, on loan from a private collection.

Evocatively demonstrating Van Huysum’s gift for creating sophisticated still life compositions packed with detail, the pairing has remained together since leaving Van Huysum’s studio - incredibly rare for these kinds of paintings. It is believed they were conceived as pendant pieces from the outset, one featuring mostly fruits, the other depicting flowers.

The paintings are exceptionally well-preserved, giving viewers one of the greatest chances to see up close the brushstrokes that were sometimes as fine as a single hair. Along with the trademark freshness of colour and transparency, they demonstrate what made Van Huysum one of the most in-demand still life painters in 18th century Netherlands.

Born into a painting dynasty, Jan Van Huysum rose to become the most celebrated member of his family, and his influence on still life painting is seen decades after his death. An innovator, his compositions revitalised the language of still life painting, frequently placing them in outdoor and sunny environments and imbuing them with classical references and extremely detailed realism. His rococo colour and Arcadian landscapes contrasted with the earlier still life works that prioritised dark interiors. It proved popular at the time as his work sold at higher prices than those of his compatriot Rembrandt, and he counted Kings and noblemen amongst his eager patrons.

He was particularly celebrated for his depiction of flowers, and the incredibly small details that he incorporated into these studies, such as insects and drops of water. In both works on display are small and large tortoiseshell butterflies nestled amongst the flora. The paintings are crammed full of detail including grapes, figs, melon, walnuts, apricot, pomegranate, plums, ants, wasps, caterpillars, flies and beetles.

His vast and complex compositions can also be seen as illusions, not just because of the palpable surfaces, but because they incorporate varieties of flower and fruit that bloom at different times of the year. To achieve this co-existence Van Huysum would painstakingly spend years painting the flowers that bloomed in their respective seasons. This could account for why he painted 241 works, a number that may appear large for an 18th century artist, but is comparatively minimal to other still life painters. It is also why these works have been curiously signed with two dates.

Of interest to botanists is what is commonly known as the “Van Huysum rose”, a yellow flower that does not exist anymore, but commonly appears in his paintings. Although some claim it to be an invention of the artist, there is ample evidence that the rose did in fact exist during this time, including correspondence in which he laments that he could not get his hands on such a flower. Famed for his accuracy, the rose probably did exist, but is now only able to be seen through the eyes and paintbrush of Van Huysum.

An interesting history accompanies the paintings since they first left the studio. In the 18th century they were acquired by the great Swiss painter and dealer Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), who expressed his admiration of Van Huysum in his famous Treatise on the Principles and Rules of Painting (1781), calling these paintings “the most beautiful [and] the most perfectly finished”. Financial difficulties forced him to part with them, and they were even later confiscated during the Napoleonic wars. In 1835 they arrived in the UK, passing through prestigious collections such as those of the Barings and the Rothschilds, until eventually residing with the current owner in 1946.

There is also a connection between the work of Van Huysum and the history behind Strawberry Hill House and Gardens. Horace Walpole’s father, the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), was a huge admirer of the artist and played a pivotal role in introducing his work to Britain, even commissioning several works. Horace was never able to acquire his own, although he did display a work by another Van Huysum, his brother Jacob, who had once resided with his father at Chelsea. However, his appreciation for the genre can be seen in the eleven still life flower paintings by the French artist Jean Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-1699) and his son Antoine (1672-1747) that were once part of his collection at Strawberry Hill (the collection is not with us anymore as it was dispersed at auction in 1842).

Now these exquisite examples are being displayed in the Red Bedchamber, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in a setting that is not too dissimilar to the rooms and houses where the paintings would’ve been viewed centuries earlier at their inception. It invites the public to engage with the intricacies of a Dutch master, as well as the 18th century fascination with nature, as reflected in Horace Walpole’s home, garden and art collection.

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