Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) is regarded by many as the best female Dutch artist of the 17th and 18th centuries. A student of artist Willem van Aelst, she mastered the genre of still life, specializing in flower paintings. Her command of technique, her sense of composition, and her use of colors added a compelling vibrancy to her still-life paintings.
Ruysch was born in The Hague in the Netherlands in 1664. When she was three years old, she moved with her family to Amsterdam, where she was raised. One of twelve children, she was born into a wealthy and prominent family that provided an artistic pedigree. Her mother's father, Pieter Post, started out as a painter, specializing in landscapes and battle scenes, before becoming an architect who designed buildings in the classical style. In the 1640s, he received an appointment as the court painter and architect for Prince Frederik Hendrik and settled in The Hague. Post's brother Frans also painted landscapes.
More significantly, her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a well-known professor of anatomy and botany. With his trained scientific eye, he observed and recorded nature with a high degree of accuracy, a skill that he instilled in his daughter. This greatly influenced her future artistic output, which would be characterized by realistic, still-life depictions of plants and flowers. In addition, Frederik Ruysch was a talented amateur painter who published textual and graphic descriptions of botanical discoveries. He encouraged Ruysch's own artistic efforts and cultivated her remarkable talent. Her early drawings included scientific studies of insects and flowers.
Further influencing Ruysch's vision and future direction, the Ruysch family lived on Bloemgracht (the "flower canal"). The location was not only naturally beautiful, but it attracted other artists as well. Living nearby was German painter Ernst Stuven, who worked in Holland and had studied under well-known Dutch flower painter Willem van Aelst, who would have a significant impact on Ruysch's career.
Van Aelst, who moved to Amsterdam in 1657, was famous for creating elaborate still-life paintings that featured spiraling compositions and eschewed the convention of symmetrical arrangements of depicted bouquets. Van Aelst's somewhat irregular approach translated itself into the works of his pupils. Among them were Ruysch, Stuven, and Ruysch's younger sister Anna Elisabeth (1666–c. 1741), who also became an artist of recognized merit, although she never attained the stature of her more determined sister.
Studied with van Aelst
In 1679, when she was fifteen years old, Ruysch started an apprenticeship with van Aelst, and she began producing various kinds of still life paintings, mostly flower studies and woodland scenes. Van Aelst taught her the requisite skill of composing a bouquet in a vase but in his less formalized fashion that produced a much more realistic and palpable effect. In their works, some flowers and leaves were allowed to droop over the sides of vases, while others were revealed from the back, which produced a more rounded shape. Ruysch would build upon van Aelst's compositional innovations, which instilled a vitality into her paintings.
It has been speculated that Anna also studied with her sister's teacher. But it is certain that Ruysch taught Anna. Only about ten of Anna Ruysch's signed works survive, and one work in particular—a still life of fruit painted in 1685 when she was nineteen years old—reveals van Aelst's style of composition and also certain unique details that were characteristic of her older sister. (More of Anna's work may survive, but this is somewhat difficult to ascertain, as she didn't sign her work, a practice that was typical of many of her contemporary colleagues. In contrast, about a hundred of her sister's works are known to exist.)
Ruysch studied with van Aelst until he died in 1683, but her earliest paintings began appearing around 1680. By the time she was eighteen she was turning out independently signed paintings and was on her way to establishing a successful career.
Started a Large Family
In 1693, Ruysch married the painter and lace dealer Juriaen Pool. At that time, she was painting large flower pieces for an international circle of patrons. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage and had ten children. Ruysch would continue to work despite her marital and motherly duties. Indeed, even though, as she claimed, she essentially raised her children on her own, her domestic chores coincided with her most creative artistic period. Her large brood seemed in no way to interfere with the quality of her work. 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, a considerable number for someone creating flower paintings in painstaking detail.
In 1701, Ruysch and Pool moved to The Hague, where both artists joined the Guild of St Luke, the city's association of painters. In 1708, the couple was invited to Dusseldorf, Germany, to serve as court painters to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine of Bavaria. Even as a court painter, Ruysch continued meeting the demands of her Dutch patrons. The couple remained in Dusseldorf until the prince's death in 1716, then returned to Holland.
Ruysch remained in Amsterdam for the rest of her life, creating fruit and flower paintings for prominent patrons. Her works were in great demand by prominent noble families.
Baroque Flower Painters
Ruysch practiced her art in the Baroque period of art history. Baroque art was a style that arose in Europe around 1600 as a reaction against the Mannerist style, an intricate and formulaic approach that dominated the late Renaissance period. The Baroque style was less complex and more realistic. Flower painting emerged as part of the movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century. Factors influencing its emergence included the growing and more affluent merchant and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany. At the time, northern Europe witnessed the importation of many new and exotic plants. In particular, in Holland, Ruysch's homeland, the Dutch 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.
Women artists were especially attracted to painting still life. However, artistic painting was considered a male province. The most famous Dutch painter at the time was Rembrandt, who was the leading portraitist in Amsterdam. During the era, artistic efforts were divided into two categories: "greater" and "lesser." The greater categories included religious and historical themes. Among the "lesser" categories were still life, portraits and landscapes, and these were considered areas appropriate for women. Most other women who were painting in this era were members of noble families or were relatives of well-known male painters, and they painted as a hobby. It was widely believed in those days that women were incapable of artistic genius.
Because of those prevailing attitudes, it is noteworthy that Ruysch, a woman, would come to be such a highly regarded artist. She managed to make her mark in the predominantly male world of the Dutch Old Masters. She was viewed as one of the greatest flower painters of either gender. She stood out from most female contemporaries because she was more ambitious and her paintings were startlingly realistic and, at the same time, symbolic. Only a small number of other women artists shared Ruysch's ambition and talent and were held in high esteem. Among them were Anna Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster, Michaëlina Woutiers and Maria van Oosterwijck
But Ruysch was unique even among the other highly regarded women painters of her time. Her paintings were more than just realistic and scientifically accurate depictions. Ruysch possessed excellent skill and technique. But she enhanced her technique with an artist's sensitivity and sensibility. Like her contemporaries, Ruysch created bouquets that were dramatically lit against dark backgrounds, but Ruysch's backgrounds were more revealing, as they suggested an architectural setting. She used form, color and textures in ways that were innovative, bold, and dynamic. Moreover, her works displayed a meticulous attention to detail. She paid particular attention to leaves, which she felt were just as important as the flowers.
Her open, diagonal compositions contrasted with the more compact and symmetrical arrangements that the other early 17th century women painters employed. Ruysch's compositions were asymmetrical and much more lively. They featured wildly curving stems that reached high into the air or drooped over the sides of the vase. Her flower arrangements were more loose. They appeared more spontaneous. The arrangements seemed less formalized, but this informality was carefully designed to achieve the ultimate effect. The end result was that her works possessed more energy and created the illusion of immediate realism. A viewer could almost reach out and touch her bouquets.
A representative example of her work is "Flower Still Life," which depicts a large arrangement of flowers that rise and spill over the vase. Each stem and petal is portrayed in intricate detail in bright colors. Against the dark background, the flowers seem almost revealed in a photographic light.
In this way, her works were similar to paintings done by eighteenth-century artists such as Jan van Huysum, Jan van Os and Johan Christiaan Roedig. In fact, with her innovative techniques, Ruysch employed a style that can be seen as a transition from 17th-century to 18th-century flower painting.
Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86. During her lifetime, she was fortunate to gain widespread fame, and her works were highly valued. Among her contemporaries, she was called Hollants Kunstwonder ("Holland's art prodigy") and Onze vernuftige Kunstheldin ("Our subtle art heroine"), and the Onsterflyke Y-Minerf ("Immortal Minerva of the Amsterdam"). When she died, 11 contemporary poets paid her tribute.
Despite the fact that flower paintings today are regarded 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. Her paintings were featured in major exhibitions in Europe including "Still Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550–1720," at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1999, and "Each their own Reason: Women Artists in Belgium and the Netherlands 1500–1950" at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Arnhem in 2000.
In January 2000, the art magazine Kunstschrift devoted an entire issue to Ruysch and her work, proclaiming, "When a work by Rachel Ruysch appears on the art market, as still happens from time to time, it creates a sensation." Although she produced more than 250 paintings in her life, only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do appear on the market, it makes headlines. For instance, in 1999, a Ruysch still-life painting of flowers with a bird's nest was found behind the door of a country house. The owner of the house and the painting had no idea of the value of the treasure that was stowed away so unceremoniously. Fortunately, the painting was found by an art auctioneer. When it went on sale at an auction at Deauville, Normandy, in January 1999, the painting went for 2.9 million French francs, or the equivalent of $508,000.
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"Ruysch, Rachel." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruysch-rachel
"Ruysch, Rachel." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruysch-rachel
Ruysch, Rachel (1664–1750)
RUYSCH, RACHEL (1664–1750)
RUYSCH, RACHEL (1664–1750), Dutch painter. One of the most successful women artists of early modernity, Ruysch was born in The Hague. While growing up, she assisted her father, Frederik Ruysch, a professor of anatomy and botany, by recording the appearances of the exotic plants he studied. The resulting works may have encouraged her father, who was also an amateur painter and collector, to apprentice his fifteen-year-old daughter to the Amsterdam still life painter Willem van Aelst (1627–c. 1683). While it was uncommon for a girl to train for a profession outside the home, painting still lifes posed fewer obstacles than other genres because, for example, she was spared drawing from nude models—an activity deemed inappropriate for women until well into the twentieth century.
In her earliest works, Ruysch closely followed the dramatically lit woodland scenes of the Dutch painters of the previous generation, Otto Marseus van Schrieck and Abraham Mignon (1640–1679). In paintings like Arrangement of Flowers by a Tree Trunk from the 1680s (Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum), Ruysch depicted forestal vignettes complete with small-scale creatures. Characteristically, Ruysch repeats Schriek's motif of the lizard with a butterfly perched in its open mouth, but minimizes the menacing import of such a creature by reducing its scale and by relegating it to the fringe of the composition. Mignon's influence is more noticeable in Floral Still Life from 1686 (Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester), which replicates the right half of a Mignon painting in Vaduz Castle. Ruysch adopted Mignon's practice of placing cultivated plants in natural settings, but she omitted Mignon's signature goldfinches and other latent Christian symbols. By choosing to stress decorative effects over iconographic details in both the Glasgow and Rochester paintings, Ruysch limits symbolic interpretations of her paintings.
In 1693 Ruysch married Mignon's adopted son, the portrait painter Juriaen Pool. Despite the demands of raising ten children, Ruysch remained active as a painter, becoming a member of the Confrerie Pictura in 1701 and later joining the painter's guild in The Hague in 1709. Shortly thereafter, Ruysch and Pool relocated to Düsseldorf, where they became court painters to the elector palatine John William.
In her mature works Ruysch increased the decorative and theatrical aspects of her compositions, presumably to suit her patron's sense of refinement. While her early endeavors represented floral groupings as they occurred in nature, she later experimented with juxtapositions of cultivated and wild plants in vased bouquets. Ruysch also explored fruit assemblages as pendants to her floral pieces. One sees all of these elements combined in Fruit and Flowers in a Forest from 1714 in Augsburg. This piece, which originally hung in the elector's bedroom, shows Ruysch's skill in rendering the vibrant flowers' fragility to contrast with the lusciously firm fruits strung across the forest floor, a motif that recalls her earlier woodland vignettes. Ruysch deliberately composed the scene, imposing her own order upon the natural world with the floral arrangement occupying the upper register across the stone ledge, the fruit closer to the Earth, and the requisite insects and reptiles framing the scene from the periphery. In the Augsburg painting, as in her entire oeuvre, Ruysch retained the dark, moody lighting of her early manner, yet heightened the vibrancy of individual elements. For example, while at the elector's court, she began to employ the newly discovered pigment Prussian blue, an inexpensive means of summoning luminous blues. Similarly, Ruysch utilized a smooth touch to craft crystal-clear surfaces. When Ruysch and Pool returned to Amsterdam in 1716, Ruysch brought her aristocratically fostered aesthetic with her and continued to paint elegant still lifes such as Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Table Top, now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Here, Ruysch replicated the supple textures of the petals and crafted a subtle play of pinks against the dark backdrop and cobalt vase, as she had done in Düsseldorf, but restricted the scope to a moderately sized bouquet. Ruysch painted works of this type for gentrified Dutch burghers until she was well into her eighties.
Ruysch's work found a receptive audience and contemporary writers praised her extensively. Such esteem was admirable for any painter, but especially so for a woman. As Johan van Gool wrote in De nieuwe schouburg der Nederlandtsche kunstschilders en schilderessen in 1750, her artfulness "was all the more astonishing and to be praised in women, who by nature are destined to other occupations"(vol. 2, p. 541). Despite such gendered trepidations, Ruysch earned international renown for her expertly wrought and pleasingly arranged creations.
See also Netherlands, Art in the ; Women and Art .
Berardi, Marianne. Science into Art: Rachel Ruysch's Early Development as a Still-life Painter. Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1998.
Gool, Johan van. De nieuwe schouburg der Nederlandtsche kunstschilders en schilderessen. 2 vols. The Hague, 1750. Reprinted Soest, 1971.
Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists 1550–1950. New York, 1984.
Christopher D. M. Atkins
"Ruysch, Rachel (1664–1750)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruysch-rachel-1664-1750
"Ruysch, Rachel (1664–1750)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ruysch-rachel-1664-1750