Balthasar van der Ast was a brilliant, still-life painter associated with the Dutch Golden Age of painting, a period belonging to the European Baroque movement. His still lifes became especially remarkable for his use of unconventional elements such as insects, shells, and lizards to animate his compositions. Not much is known about van der Ast's personal life, but his legacy was left in his vast production of realistic oil paintings.
Balthasar van der Ast was born by 1593 or 94, in the city of Middelburg, Netherlands, to a wealthy family of wool merchants. Balthasar's father, who was already a widower, passed away when the young artist was about fifteen years old.
Orphaned, Balthasar went to live with his older sister Maria, who married the distinguished Dutch painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. The young artist would be trained by his brother-in-law as a still-life painter. Van der Ast's early production carries a significant influence from Bosschaert.
In return, following Bosschaert's passing, Balthasar trained his three sons, Ambrosius the Younger, Johannes, and Abraham Bosschaert. This group of artists would later be regarded as the Bosschaert Dynasty. The three brothers mastered the art of floral still life painting.
In 1619, Balthasar moved with the Bosschaert family to the city of Utrecht, where he promptly joined the local Guild of St. Luke. By the same time, the Dutch painter Roelandt Savery also entered the guild and went to exert great influence on van der Ast's style, as well as his pupils'. Savery's impact on van der Ast was felt especially in his interest in color tonalities.
The artist also began to populate his compositions with different elements, such as lizards, insects, arachnids, and shells, giving a new life to his still life production. Some of his most famous artworks were still life of flowers but always joined with an element of surprise, like seen in A Still Life of Roses, Irises, Tulips, Narcissi and other Flowers in a Glass Vase with Gilt Mounts set Upon a Ledge Flanked by a Lizard and a Large Beetle. It is possible that van der Ast trained Jan Davidsz de Heem and influence the works of Bartholomeus Assteyn and Evert van Aelst.
As van der Ast's reputation grew, so did his clientele. He worked in his studio in Middelburg and was interrupted several times throughout the day as his clients came to his door. This led Balthasar to find an alternative method to deal with his client's needs more efficiently, called a showpiece.
As the name suggests, a showpiece is a sort of catalog in one large painting showing what was in the artist's abilities. Van der Ast became the first documented artist to create a painting with the intent of displaying to the client the many possibilities of commissions. He created large paintings with various colors and elements harmoniously put together in a composition for the client to chose.
A beautiful example of one of his still-life showpieces is A Basket of Grapes and other Fruit, painted on a large wooden panel circa 1625. This masterpiece was created to show his clients his painting style and his domain of depicting different elements. He displayed a large wicker basket filled with pears, shiny multicolored grapes, fuzzy peaches, and various leaves, which takes up most of the composition.
On the bottom left, there is a blue decorative plate with vibrant red cherries and a single peach on top. Beside the plate, there are assorted shells depicted in vibrant colors and exquisite detail. To the right of the painting, Van der Ast placed a blue ceramic vase with colorful flowers, as well as a couple of birds.
The representation of many different elements in one artwork was intentional. This helped the artist's clients choose what they wanted based on their price range and aesthetic preferences. For example, a client a budget, and the painter would use his showpiece to demonstrate what was possible within the price. The value of a painting was mostly based on its size and the elements represented in it. For example, flowers and animals were more expensive than certain fruits because of the level of difficulty.
The color pallet was also a significant factor in the final price and value of a painting, as some pigments were more valuable than others. During this period, the blue pigment was the most expensive color and created an element of luxury to the final painting.
By 1632, the artist moved to the city of Delft. The next year, he married Margrieta Jans van Buijeren. The couple had two daughters, Helena and Maria. After this final move, he joined the Delft's Guild of St. Luke. Most of van der Ast oeuvre is comprised of small scale artworks. However, in his larger paintings, the artist displayed a looser, more painterly execution.
Van der Ast remained with his family in Delft until his passing in 1657. He was buried in the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, in the center of Delft. This beautiful Gothic architecture features a leaning tower and is also the resting ground for Johannes Vermeer.
One of van der Ast's main artistic legacies, besides his beautiful oeuvre, is that he was able to uphold Ambrosius Bosschaert's style of still-life painting. Balthasar was also one of the first known painters to work with large showpieces as a guide for his clientele, making his production more appealing to the art market.