What’s It Worth?

Balthasar van der Ast, Still Life with Basket of Fruit

Balthasar van der Ast, Still Life with Basket of Fruit, 1622, oil on canvas, 19 1/2 x 32 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

What would you expect to cost more: a painting that might last, like this one has, for hundreds of years; or a flower that appeared in the painting, which might bloom for perhaps a week? Today you might hesitate to open your wallet wider for the flower, but there was a time when paintings such as these would have sold for far less than the priciest of blossoms.

In the Netherlands of the 17th century, floral still-life paintings hung in all the best homes from Haarlem to the Hague. The wealth of the burgeoning merchant class fueled the art market, and collectors were keen to show off their worldliness through the exotic and costly objects they acquired in their travels.

One way to demonstrate a cosmopolitan point of view was to display images of unusual flowers. Artists of the day would compose botanical fictions, including flowers that never would have blossomed simultaneously, gathered from far-flung points across the globe. Such images could demonstrate the owner’s refined taste for luxury objects.

How luxurious? According to some estimates, during the height of Dutch “tulip mania,” speculation on a single bulb of the much-coveted Semper Augustus tulip was equal to 30 times a Dutchman’s average annual salary. Purchasing a painting of one of those precious flowers was the closest that many well-to-do merchants might come to tulip ownership.

Jan Jansz. van de Velde, Still Life with Goblet and Fruit

Jan Jansz. van de Velde, Still Life with Goblet and Fruit, 1656, oil on canvas, 14 ¾ x 13 ¾ in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Anonymous gift, by exchange

By the time Jan Jansz. de Velde painted the work to the right, however, the tulip market had bottomed out two decades before. The crash left many once-wealthy investors destitute. The impact was certainly felt in the art market. Notice the differences in the two paintings, created just a few decades apart. The earlier work shows a profusion of objects, rendered in exuberant hues. The later image, despite the glittering goblet and the porcelain bowl, is a study in restraint and austerity.

What object is your most prized possession? Do you think you’ll feel the same about it five years from now? What about 10 or 20? Chew on that thought when you come to see Visual Feast, and then be sure to explore our permanent collection to discover what people have valued in different times and places.

Today’s guest contributor is Alana Wolf. A recent Atlanta transplant, Alana founded Public Acts of Art, an organization that showcases site-specific art in unconventional urban spaces. She has worked for the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and contributed to projects for the Art on the Beltline, the City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Feminist Art Project. As an intern for the Museum’s Education Department, Alana will be researching and writing on this fall’s exhibition Still-Life Masterpieces: A Visual Feast from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Look for more posts by Alana at A Life, Still.

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