Flourishing in a niche

WHAT a perennial favorite - Jan van Huysum's ``Vase of Flowers in a Niche''! Recently meeting this jewel again face to face in the fresh, refurbished Evans Wing of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, I could see how at home it was in this ``palace for the people,'' to use Nathaniel Burt's eloquent epithet. Not only the scale and quality were regal, but also the bouquet was a bit of a d'ej`a vu after the ladies' committee's fragrant arrangements in the flanking niches of the grand rotunda. But it seems to me that there's more to it than that. Its beauty is enhanced by its setting in the museum but surely reaches far beyond its immediate context.

Van Huysum's niche is serenely, calmly classical. The mottled-marble plinth supporting the sculptured putti urn could be an element of an architectural order. These are part of the language of Dutch classicism, which had become interpenetrated with French courtly styles in the last quarter of the 17th century and into the 18th.

The marvel is the peace with which the niche, which acts as an interior arched frame, complements and coexists with van Huysum's ripe display, not restricting, but enlarging his repertoire.

For the flowers represent another interest altogether, though these tastes had converged in the excesses of flowers required for the gardens close to the palace at Versailles, where hothouse hyacinths and narcissus grown from imported bulbs were replaced twice a day to preserve the illusion of perfect bloom.

A northern passion for flowers blossomed earlier in the art of the late Flemish manuscripts, also court-objects. There Shakespeare's carnations (the symbol of divine love), pinks, Johnny-jump-ups, wild roses, and iris, snipped and strewn, cast shadows on the gold borders. But they shared the privileged place with butterflies and other insects of the meadows.

In our ``Flowers,'' butterflies pose, wings closed, or fly in outstretched silhouette; ants march across the rose; the bee buzzes on. As in the manuscript, the whole meadow comes inside with the flowers.

Jan (Velvet) Brueghel, living in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and thought to be the first to paint a vase of flowers on its own as a work of art, perpetuated this sense of natural unity. He initiated the practice of reconstructing bouquets from separate studies, piling multiseasonal meadow and luxury flowers higher than life, adorning them with dragonflies.

But why has 18th-century van Huysum chosen flowers that grow thick with tender petals or replete with clustered blossoms? Heavy, lush poppies; massed blooms of the Rosa huysumiana; airy hydrangeas hidden behind expansive acanthus; multi-trumpeted narcissus; auricula cut like nosegays on the plinth. Had van Huysum been drawn to those varieties that formed compositions within themselves?

An equally handsome flowerpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by van Huysum's contemporary, Rachel Ruysch, matches a deeper niche with more massive and sculptural single blooms.

In van Huysum's piece, in fact, the exception is startling: the slight stalk of dry grass (a motif his father used more freely) set centrally before the stem of the dancing white tulip. Van Huysum can afford to glory in his incomparably fine technique. His unobtrusive brush, touching oil paint to wood panel, describes the subtle sheen, luster, and translucence of leaf, stem, and flower. Contemporaries wondered at the verisimilitude of his water droplets, dripping, glistening, almost touchable.

Like the 15th-century pioneer in oil painting, Jan van Eyck, van Huysum delights in the sparkle, the reflections, and the infinitesimal. But his marvelous light binds it all together within more delicate tonal values, with softer radiances from the half-shadowed rose.

Van Huysum's own symbolic presence in the painting - his trompe l'oeil signature ``etched'' into the stone face of the plinth in Roman fashion but not in classic capitals - closes our meeting with a flourish. We reflect in leaving what it signifies to have plants in ``palaces for the people.''

We thank our late 19th- and early 20th-century predecessors, who, while their contemporaries continued to build in the majestic formal style of our museum ``palace'' architecture, rescued the still life. Deprecated in the Salon, it is now once more a legitimate means of expression.

Now we can see the clear blues and warm oranges that dominate, as dynamic complements, the asymmetry of the structural line as free from the confines of classicism. We can sing with the ringing colors our modern pleasure in cherishing all the humble and the glorious living things.

And we can salute the people of the world today who have united to make the ``palaces'' that harbor these exhilarating treasures more and more open to all the people (at least on Saturday mornings!).

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