DescriptionPROPERTY FROM A WEST COAST PRIVATE COLLECTION
ADELHEID DIETRICH (German, 1827-1891)
Floral Still Life, 1867
Oil on panel
10-1/2 x 8-3/4 inches (26.7 x 22.2 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Adelheid Dietrich/ 1867
Dedicated, signed, and dated verso: Für/ Mon. Boulard gemalt / von / Adelheid Dietrich / 1867
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Osborn Firing, Boca Raton;
By descent to the current owner.
Adelheid Dietrich, author of this remarkable floral still life, was born in Wittenberg, Germany. The little that is known about her life has been deduced from exhibition records as well as the slim biography of her father, Eduard Dietrich (Spremburg 1803-1877), a landscape, architecture and history painter with whom she trained. He served for many years as a drawing professor in Erfurt, which is where she apparently also lived and worked. Whether she had a family of her own is unknown. Her father is recorded as having had some public success: he exhibited his work in the Berlin Academy exhibitions in 1832 and 1836, and also painted a scene of Luther's living room for the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm III (1797-1840). For a full twenty years, from 1850 to 1870 according to Thieme-Becker (vol. IX, pp. 257-8), Adelheid's paintings were included in various exhibitions across Germany, where they were admired for their "extremely careful execution."
Of the approximately fifty traceable works by her hand, nearly all are flower paintings characterized by a crystalline intensity, and painted in the finest detail with extraordinary technical facility--notably in the draftsmanship which is doubtless a testament to her father's excellent tutelage. She also painted fruit still lifes, and combination flower-and-fruit pieces, with the same dazzling precision. She used both canvas and wooden panel as supports, and nearly always dated her works in addition to signing them with her full name in inconspicuous places in the compositions (in the present work she signed at lower right in the shadow above a fern frond). Her period of activity, judging from extant dated paintings, appears to have been circa 1864 to circa 1883, with the 1860s being her most productive phase. Since she worked so meticulously, she tended to paint on a rather small scale, with the average format being roughly that of the present picture.
In addition to their technical virtuosity, Dietrich's flowerpieces display a thorough understanding of and familiarity with the botanical subjects she chose to paint. In keeping with the taste of her time, Dietrich tended to represent common "garden variety" flowers rather than exotic horticultural specimens which, broadly speaking, characterized earlier traditions of flower painting. For this reason, and in spite on their sometimes quasi-formal presentations in footed glass vases, Dietrich's bouquets nearly always possess a friendly, casual appearance with trailing grasses and a feeling of exuberant abundance. Indeed, during the Victorian period, common garden flowers were endowed with an incredibly elaborate rubric of symbolic meaning that was rehearsed in poetry, music, jewelry and fabric design, furniture and, naturally, painting, prints and sculpture as well: violets meaning purity, lilies of the valley meaning return of happiness, red roses meaning love, yellow ones meaning friendship, daisies meaning innocence and so on.
This bouquet arranged on a stack of stone slabs within an indefinite landscape setting almost has the appearance of an oversized, abandoned nosegay. Exactly how the arrangement manages to stay together and tilt toward the viewer without a container underscores the obvious artifice at work in flower paintings of this type. But the incredible illusionism Dietrich achieved in her presentation of the plants themselves, and the way she showed them twisting and turning in space with such airiness and grace, enable the viewer to "suspend disbelief", as it were, and simply marvel at the painter's skill. In this bouquet, Adelheid Dietrich built her composition from morning glories, sweet peas, vetch, fern, lilies, grasses, a bramble vine with thorns in a wonderful deep russet color, Queen Anne's lace, and bright orange poppy anemones. A damselfly (rather than a dragonfly!) floats near the artist's signature near the bottom of the bouquet.
As a number of still-life scholars have noted, Adelheid Dietrich's compositions are indebted to the work of the great 17th-century Dutch flower painters. But to be somewhat more precise, Dietrich's compositions rely much more heavily upon the early 18th-century work of Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch, as well as early 19th-century French flower painters following the tradition of the Van Spaendoncks. Many of the specific features of Dietrich's work can be traced specifically to the unique ways Ruysch conceived her floral arrangements. In particular, the bouquets have an asymmetrical, triangulated shape which is anchored near the lower center by the largest blossoms with deepest throats (such as lilies or bindweed blossoms). These are surrounded by many varieties of smaller flowers and grasses which soften the profile of the bouquet. Historically, Ruysch was one of the first still-life specialists to explore the motif of the "nosegay," a bouquet without any container and composed of common garden flowers, which became a mainstay of 19th-century flower painting. Ruysch's work would have been accessible to Dietrich in many public and princely collections in Germany, in Düsseldorf, Fulda, Munich, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and elsewhere.
One of the most fascinating features of this work by Dietrich is, curiously enough, painted on the reverse of the panel. There, the artist wrote in white paint a prominent "dedication" of the painting to a Monsieur Boulard. Since nothing is known about Dietrich's clientele, or even her movements around Europe, Dietrich's gift of such a beautiful painting to a Frenchman suggests a host of tantalizing scenarios. Did Dietrich have an international group of clients for her work? Did she live and work in France, in Paris? Was Boulard a collector of her work, or perhaps a friend, admirer, fellow artist? Interestingly, there are a number of French flower painters named Boulard: Auguste Boulard (1825-1897), his son Auguste (1852-1927), and a little-known J. B. Boulard. Perhaps this was a gift from one flower painter to another. In any event, as the scholarship on Dietrich evolves, this beautiful little work gifted to Boulard may prove to be an important clue in the reconstruction of this wonderful artist's biography.
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