Back to Nature!
Back to nature! was the cry in the Age of Enlightenment. This was in reaction to the Rococo or Louis XV style which had dominated fashionable tastes in the eighteenth century, with its elaborate lines, and its shell and floral motifs. Around 1770 the demand was for greater simplicity. Indeed, classical antiquity was not just a source of inspiration for new formal idioms, it set the tone for moral virtue.
Gradually, the plethora of scrolls made way for straight shapes. In architecture, elements borrowed from the classical world lent new structures the aura of ancient temples. In fashion, loose white robes replaced wide, hooped dresses, and natural curls returned as powdered wigs disappeared. At the same time, the strictly symmetrical French gardens with their trimmed box hedges lost their appeal. Instead, landscape gardeners laid out parks in the English style which were designed to appear as if they had emerged naturally. Nothing was further from the truth, of course, since here too, nature had been formed by man.
In his Still Life with Flowers in a Park Landscape Willem van Leen presents an array of summer flowers. Pastel tints dominate and the first impression left by the painting is one of incredible clarity. This is created by the concentrated light that enters the painting from the left. The background remains in the shade and receives less attention as a result, nevertheless it forms an essential part of the painting. The neatly designed grounds are more than just a suitable setting for the superb display of flowers in the foreground, this is a typical park of the period in which the painting was made. The canvas was painted in the Age of Enlightenment at the close of the eighteenth century, when the natural was preferred above the artificial.
Between culture and nature
Garden sculptures were not regarded as artificial. Placed at the culmination of a line of sight, or half hidden by trees, they represented the interplay of nature and culture. This is evident in our painting. Beneath the thick foliage lies a large stone lion. The animal, covered in moss, is surrounded by nature. With its regal, yet idyllic bearing the sculpture adds a certain allure to the elegant park landscape. In the composition the lion plays an equally vital role. The diagonal movement that the artist inserted into the painting by placing the basket of flowers at a slant, reaches its crescendo in this majestic garden sculpture. The lion is the point at which the eye of the viewer comes to rest.
In both form and content, the sculpture therefore plays a crucial role in the painting. Yet this was not always recognised. At a certain moment the lion was painted over until it was no longer visible. The forked tree trunk which was already incorporated in part, was continued down to the base. Where the lion’s paws extended over the pedestal these were disguised with moss and other growth. During restoration, when this early overpainting was removed, the original intention of the artist became clear. And the work became even more typical of the age in which it was painted than we had at first thought. Indeed, it now fits in perfectly with the rest of Van Leen’s oeuvre. That the forged signature disappeared during restoration detracts in no way from the authenticity of the work. On that the experts all agree.
Why it was decided that the lion should be painted over can now only be guessed at. The simplest explanation is one of taste. Perhaps this wild animal was considered inappropriate as a background to the delicate floral display. But there may have been another, more opportunist reason behind the move. It is possible that it was an attempt to give this painting by Willem van Leen a more seventeenth-century appearance. In that case the guilty party failed to realise that between floral still lifes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lies a world of difference. In over a century and a half the character of this genre changed so much that minor adjustments would hardly have sufficed to turn the clock back convincingly. A comparison between Van Leen’s still life and a Basket of Flowers by Johannes Bosschaert shows how true this is. Unlike Bosschaert’s basket, Van Leen’s is not placed upright, but slanted and leaning on a shell. Canted elements sometimes appear in seventeenth-century still lifes, but these are usually pewter or porcelain objects. The only genuinely seventeenth-century aspect of Van Leen’s painting is the shell, which was considered one of nature’s wonders.
Exotic floral splendour
In terms of content there is also a world of difference: in seventeenth-century bouquets the tulip was the principal flower, while local types were included as extras. In the eighteenth century, however, artists gave pride of place to new types of flowers imported from distant countries. Among these exotic varieties were the Chinese aster, the peony and various kinds of lilies and poppies. Moreover, eighteenth-century bouquets featured powerfully scented flowers. Thus the depiction was not just a joy to see, it was also, by the power of suggestion, pleasing to the viewer’s sense of smell.
Characteristic of the composition of seventeenth-century floral paintings is the way they are built up in proportion to their pictorial setting. The flowers, or other objects which form the subject of the still life, are grouped against a dark background. This gives the impression that the objects protrude towards the viewer. Only a handful of Golden Age still-life painters provided their bouquets with views into the distance.
Willem van Leen shows himself to be a man of his own times by placing the floral basket in a landscape setting. This idea was originally espoused by the Amsterdam painter Jan van Huysum, who was the first to replace the solid dark background with trees and bushes. The scalloped console was also first employed by Van Huysum. His innovations were so influential that they continued to set the agenda for the composition of floral and fruit still lifes until well into the eighteenth century.
While the colours in seventeenth-century paintings are generally warm, those used in eighteenth-century paintings are characterised by their clear tone. It matches the tastes of the period: light pastel tints were also used in interiors and in elegant fashions. The method artists employed was deigned to bring out the full clarity of these gentle hues. First a layer of ground – lime with bright white chalk – was painted onto the support, a linen canvas or an oak or mahogany panel. Over this the artist painted the picture in thin, transparent paint. By adding different layers of glaze paint, with the white of the ground continuing to shine through the thin layers, artists managed to achieve extraordinarily fine results and a particularly lifelike quality. Petals in gentle colours, insects with delicate wings and small or large dewdrops appear almost tangible. This still life is in such an exquisite state of preservation that even the most fragile layers of paint have survived. It clearly shows the degree to which Willem van Leen had mastered this time-consuming method of painting.
Whatever the reason for the painting out of the lion, this floral still life by Willem van Leen remains recognisable as a product of the eighteenth century. The presence of an impressive garden sculpture emphasises this aspect of the painting. It accentuates the interplay of nature and culture which was so admired in the Age of Enlightenment.
Willem van Leen was born in 1753 in Dordrecht and visited Paris several times in his youth. In 1789 the advent of the French Revolution forced him to return to the Netherlands. In the French capital Van Leen had met Gerard and Cornelis van Spaendonck, two brothers from Den Bosch who had become famous for their realistic floral still lifes. It was from them that Van Leen adopted the method of painting with numerous transparent layers of glaze paint. He emphasised the idyllic atmosphere in his work by placing his bouquets in park landscapes, emulating the popular early eighteenth-century flower painter Jan van Huysum. Willem van Leen thus became a celebrated painter of floral and fruit still lifes in his own right. He died in Delfshaven in 1825.
Middelburg c. 1607 - 1628
Basket of Flowers
Panel, 36.4 x 54.6 cm
Monogrammed I.B. 1624 (bottom left)
Current location unknown
Jan van Huysum
Amsterdam 1682 - 1749 Amsterdam
Still Life with Flowers
Signed and dated: Jan van Huysum fecit 1723 (bottom right)
Panel, 80 x 60 cm
Wallace Collection, London
Willem van Leen
Dordrecht 1753 - 1825 Delfshaven
Still Life with Flowers in a Park Landscape
Canvas, 68.5 x 55.5 cm
Painted circa 1790
Signed : Van Leen f. (lower left)
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague