Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachel Ruysch

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit by Rachael Ruysch (1703)

My Daily Art Display moves into unfamiliar territory on two counts.  My featured artist is a woman and up to now, I have showcased only a few paintings by women and secondly the work is a still-life painting, a genre which I have rarely selected for my daily blog.  I marvel at the intricacy of the painting and I have no doubt that the detailed work which goes into still-life paintings is equal if not greater than in other painting genres.

My featured artist today is the Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch.  Art historians who have studied the art of the Dutch Golden Age have placed her in the top three female artists of that period.  The other two being and Maria van Oosterwijk, another specialist in flower still-life paintings and Judith Leyster, the genre painter who painted a few portraits and who also produced a single still life work. Ruysch  is widely looked upon as the most talented female in the history of still-lifes of flowers and fruits and among the greatest exponents of either sex of this genre.  True praise indeed!!

 Rachel was born in The Hague in 1664.  She came from a wealthy family and was one of twelve children.  Her mother was the daughter of Pieter Post, a Dutch painter of landscapes and battle scenes, before becoming a talented classical-style architect.  Her father Frederick Ruysch, a talented amateur painter was also a renowned Dutch botanist and anatomist.  He accepted a professorship in Amsterdam and so when Rachel was just three years old the family all moved there.    Her father was an expert in anatomical preservation and the creation of dioramas,  three-dimensional full-size or miniature models, sometimes enclosed in a glass showcase, and which would house human parts which had first been preserved and embalmed in liquor balsamicum.   Rachel took an interest in her father’s work and would often help him to decorate the collection with flowers, fishes, seashells and the delicate body parts with lace.  With his trained scientific eye, Rachel’s father was able to observe and record nature with a high degree of accuracy, and it was a talent that he inspired in his daughter. This talent was to greatly influence her works of art in the future, for her still-life floral paintings would be characterized by realism.  Another reason for Rachel’s love of plants and flowers was that she and her family lived in a district of Amsterdam called Bloemgracht, which means “flower canal”. This area was of great natural beauty and was a favourite place of artists

In 1679, at the age of fifteen she had developed a love for art and was exceptionally talented even at that young age.  Recognising his daughter’s artistic aptitude, her father arranged an apprenticeship for her with William van Aelst, a renowned painter, who specialized in still-life works with flowers or game.  Van Aelst, who moved to Amsterdam in 1657, was famous for creating elaborate still-life paintings that featured spiralling compositions and avoided the convention of symmetrical arrangements of depicted bouquets.  Van Aelst taught her the necessary skill of composing a bouquet in a vase but in his less formal manner that produced a much more realistic and tangible effect. In their more realistic works, some flowers and leaves were allowed to droop over the sides of vases, while others were revealed from the back, and by so doing, produced a more rounded shape. Later in her artistic journey, Ruysch would build upon van Aelst’s compositional innovations and this would instil a vitality into her paintings.

Rachel remained a pupil of his until his death four years later in 1683.  Her earliest art works started to appear around 1680 and by the time she was eighteen years of age in 1682 she was producing a number of independently signed paintings and her successful artistic career had just begun.

 In 1693, aged twenty nine she married the lace dealer and portrait painter, Juriaen Pool.  The couple moved to The Hague where they both enrolled in the city’s Guild of St Luke, the professional artists’ organization which regulated the sales and handled the promotion of the artists’ works.  By all accounts their marriage was a happy one and the couple went on to have ten children.  Even though, as she claimed, she essentially raised her children on her own, her life of domesticity and all the chores that went with it coincided with her most creative artistic period. Her large family seemed in no way to get in the way of the quality of her work

In 1708, both Rachel and her husband were invited to Dusseldorf, where they became court painters to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria, Johann Wilhelm.   This proved to be a very successful period in their lives and they remained there and worked for him until his death in 1716, at which time they returned to Holland.  Flower painting emerged as part of the Baroque movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century.   The reason for its popular emergence was the increase in the number of more affluent merchants and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany.  It was also around this time in northern Europe, especially Holland, that there was a marked increase in the importation of many new and exotic plants. The Dutch had developed a wide variety of flowers and gardening became increasingly popular. Often, gardeners would commission artists to paint pictures of their best or rarest flowers.

In light of her situation, she was fairly productive throughout her lifetime. She finished her final painting in 1747, when she was 83. By the time she died, she had produced more than 250 pictures, an average of about five pictures a year, which was a considerable number of works for someone creating flower paintings in painstaking detail.

Rachel Ruysch had to overcome two problems which were common in the artistic world of northern Europe at the time.  Firstly she had to overcome the fact that she was a woman and artistic painting was considered a male province.  Secondly, during this period, art was divided into two categories – “greater” and “lesser”.  Into the “greater” category one found paintings of religious and historical themes and compartmentalised in the “lesser” category were portraits, landscapes and still-lifes.  It was this “lesser” category which was deemed fit for female artists.  Women artists who painted were considered to be just painting as a hobby and were completely incapable of artistic genius. However Rachel Ruysch triumphed and became a highly regarded artist who made her mark in the male world of the Dutch Old Masters, becoming one of the greatest flower painters in either gender.

Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86, and during her lifetime she gained widespread fame, and her artistic works were highly valued.   Despite the fact that flower paintings today is still  considered as a lesser form of artistic expression, Ruysch’s reputation as a great painter remains intact.   During the 20th century, there was great interest in her works and her paintings are still featured in major exhibitions in Europe.  She is thought to have produced over 250 paintings in her life but only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do come up for sale they make headlines. In France her 1710 painting Still Life of Fruit with a Birds Nest and Insects went for the equivalent of $508,000.

My Daily Art Display painting by Rachel Ruysch is entitled Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, which she painted in 1703.  This painting, which measures 85cms x 68cms, has an opulent arrangement of flowers and fruit but could never have existed in nature as the various flower specimens and fruit blossomed and bore fruit in different seasons.  This blossoming was simply a figment of the artist’s imagination.  There is a technical perfection about this painting which had come from Rachel’s extensive botanical training.  The painting now hangs in the Akademie der bildenden Künste, in Vienna