New acquisition: A botanical study of Herman Saftleven

By on February 14, 2017

National Museum has acquired a botanical watercolor study of Herman Saftleven from 1683. It shows a pale thorne beetle and commissioned by Agnes Block who was a passionate collector of exotic plants. Today there are only 27 of the artist’s botanical studies preserved.

The acquired watercolor from I.Q. van Regteren Altenas collection is an excellent example of the Dutchman Herman Saftlevens (1609-1685) sensitive conducted botanical studies. The study represents a pale thorn beetle (Solanum sisymbriifolium), a prickly plant with small, edible fruit that originated in South America and Africa. Saftleven was active in Utrecht, primarily as a landscape painter and draftsman. He was very productive, about 300 paintings and 1200 topographic and fantasy landscape drawings are preserved. His botanical studies in large format, a genre he came to indulge late in life, performed all on behalf of a single client, amateur grower and botanist Agnes Block (1629-1704). They have been described as some of the most impressive botanical studies from the 1600s Holland, and is a valuable historical documentation of cross-fertilization between art and science.

Botanical studies originated in the emerging botany and the new passion for gardening in humanistic and aristocratic circles in Europe during the 1500s. On Saftlevens time it was an established genre in Holland. Agnes Block was a passionate collector of exotic plants that she grew in her famous garden at country estate Vijverhof near Amsterdam. There were about 500 different plants, including many rare species that was imported from foreign countries. She also ordered the images of her plants from some of the era’s most prominent artists. Saftleven performed about 100 botanical studies, of which only 27 are preserved today. Dated drawings show that he was working at Vijverhof from 1680 and periodically until his death.

In the acquired study produced a branch of the pale thorn beetle in trompel’oeil. By fruits and leaves are allowed to overlap and by dressing obscure effects occur a clear effect of depth. The branch exhibiting a fully developed flower and several buds, flowers, fruits and leaves in various stages of bloom and decay. The inside is illustrated with a cross section at the bottom. The artist’s ornate signature documents the date of completion, October 31, 1683, and complements the same time elegantly branch arabesque. Earlier the same month painted Saftleven another copy of the same plant family, a potato plant from Madagascar. The study is currently in the British Museum in London.
Although Saftlevens botanical studies provide a natural impression they reflects in fact an idealized picture of reality. Based on a number of different nature studies composed a composite image intended to convey all the known facts of a plant in one and the same illustration. Adapting the reality in this way was not only intended to beautify, there is also a method of effective scientific imaging. Blocks orders of botanical studies of Saftleven and other artists immortalized her plants in images that is both historical documents and important work of art.

The acquisition was made possible by donations from Wirosfonden. National Museum has no own funds to purchase art and crafts for, but the collections enriched by donations and private foundations and funds.

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