April 2011: Balthasar van der Ast "Still-life with a Basket of Fruits"

Published on: 31 / 03 / 2011

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

Alexander von Minutoli is mostly known as a creator of the imposing collection of artistic handicrafts. It is however worth reminding, that the count was also a consummate expert in paintings, which can be confirmed by his collection of 200 pictures. One of the pearls of this collection was a canvas by Balthasar van der Ast, "Still-life with a basket of fruits,"which irrefutably reminds of the famous painting created three decades before by Caravaggio, titled the “Basket of fruits”, currently housed in the Milanese Ambrosiana.

Both paintings depict similar fruits species gnawed by insects. The fruits are presented in a similar scheme, surrounded by grape-vine leaves, and set off from the neutral light background. The scholars keep debating that the Dutch painter might have known Caravaggio's canvas through a copy of that composition, created within the circle of the Caravaggio's followers of Utrecht. However, no other paintings resembling the canvas from the Ambrosiana, created to the North of the Alps, have been discovered so far. The chary colouring, very close to the original and also unusual for Ast, as well as quite untypical light background for this artist, denote the close acquaintance with Carvaggio's canvas (during Ast's lifetime housed in the private collection of the Milanese bishop Federico Borromeo).

The life of Ast is little known. He was born in 1593 or 1594 in Middelburg, in the family of a wealthy merchant. After the premature death of his widowed father in 1609, the teenage Balthasar and his brother Johannes were adopted by their sister Mari and her husband Ambrosius Bosschaert, who himself was the painter and senior of the painters' guild in Middelburg. Both young men became journeymen in their brother-in-law’s studio, which specialized in the floral still-life paintings. Together they gave rise to the family of painters, which was joined in the following years by the three sons of Ambrosius. As the latter died in 1621, Ast began to teach his nephews the art of painting, Ambrosius the Younger, Abraham and Johannes. Van der Ast and of his nephews were denominated “the Bosschaerts' dynasty of painters”.

The first canvases signed by Balthasar van der Ast originated about one decade after he had started terminating in the Bosschaert the Elder's studio. In 1619, the painter joined the guild of Saint Luke in Utrecht, which allowed him to get better acquainted with the output of numerous artists, from among which he was mostly inspired by the works of Roelandt Savery. At that time, in addition to the floral still-lives, Ast also painted the compositions of fruits, such as the “Still-life with a basket of fruits” canvas from the former Minutoli's collection.

The artist set off the basket of fruits in the light background, and such realistic rendering suggests that they were painted from nature. Among the preserved sketches by Ast, there is one gouache depicting a lizard and shells which might have been the preparatory study for the discussed composition This folio belongs to the sketch-book, currently housed in the Institut Néderlandais in Paris). The excellent observant skills, joined with the artistry of painting and inspiration by the famous artwork - the crucial still-life by Caravaggio - made the painting “Still-life with a basket of fruits” one of the most interesting examples of that kind within the former Silesian collections.

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