Oosterwyck, Maria van (1630–1693)

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Oosterwyck, Maria van (1630–1693)

Dutch painter of flower pieces and still lifes. Name variations: Oosterwijk. Born on August 20, 1630, in Nootdorp, near Delft, Holland, the Netherlands; died in December 1693, near Uitdam; never married; no children.

Although there are only two dozen extant works credited to the Dutch flower painter Maria van Oosterwyck, it is quite possible that some of her work has been attributed to Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–1683), who may have been an early teacher, and to Willem van Aelst (1625–c. 1683), who for years sought her hand in marriage. According to Arnold Houbraken, Oosterwyck worked slowly, which would also account for such a limited output.

Writing in 1718, Houbraken also provides what little biographical information is available on the artist: the daughter of a Dutch Protestant minister, she displayed an artistic gift early in life and was sent by her father to study with de Heem. Modern scholars question this assumption, as de Heem lived most of his life in Antwerp and only returned to Utrecht, his birthplace, briefly from 1669 to 1672, by which time Oosterwyck was well into her career. Germaine Greer , in The Obstacle Race, claims that Oosterwyck simply went to Antwerp to study with de Heem, which may indeed have been the case. Houbraken also tells us that van Aelst failed in his romantic pursuit of the artist because of her devotion to her career. Her single-mindedness was rewarded with an international reputation, including the patronage of Louis XIV, king of France, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, Stadholder William III (later king of England), and the king of Poland.

All but one of Oosterwyck's paintings are flower pictures, and they are considered some of the best of the period. "She liked to set her vases on marble table tops and nearly always included grasses with green and white striped leaves," writes Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin . "Another favorite motif is a red emperor butterfly perched in the lower foreground with its wings spread." All of her works are reminiscent of de Heem and van Aelst in feeling, although, according to Greer, her later paintings reveal more open compositions, with bolder contrasts. Greer also points out that her later asymmetrical forms might reflect van Aelst's influence, "unless his reflects her influence upon him."

Oosterwyck's one foray outside of flower painting may have produced her greatest masterpiece. Called Vanitas, the work was painted when the artist was 38, and was possibly commissioned for Emperor Leopold. The "Vanitas" of the title refers to a genre of still life developed in Leyden in the 1620s, probably because of the concentration of Calvinist scholars in that city at the time. Harris and Nochlin describe it as the most intellectual and literary form of still life, and the only one with a moral message. Three classes of objects are regularly included in the genre: symbols of a professional and personal life, objects that represent the passage of time, and objects that refer to life after death, such as a strand of ivy or a laurel branch. Oosterwyck's work is characteristic. Four objects figure prominently in the painting: a large vase of flowers; a globe with signs of the zodiac; a skull wreathed in ivy; and an account book. Countless smaller objects are strewn about a marble table in purposeful disorder, each having particular symbolic relevance. Harris and Nochlin suggest that the artist may have been drawn to this genre through Jan de Heem, and that it may have had

particular significance for her because she was known to be quite religious.

One of the most beautiful examples of Oosterwyck's flower paintings is a work titled Vase of Tulips, Roses, and Other Flowers with Insects (1669). On a small panel, the artist meticulously replicated a vase of flowers dominated by two large striped tulips, with a dragonfly perched on a strand of grass hanging over the edge of the vase, the transparency of its wings captured against a white peony. The motif butterfly is perched above the artist's name. Although the painting recalls earlier Dutch flower paintings, it is a strongly personalized work. "Clearly she was aware of prevailing fashion," write Harris and Nochlin, "but she perfected a personal variant that stressed an exquisitely detailed finish, much play with reflections and varied textures, and more symbolism than was usual for flower pictures at that time. In this work, the fly in the foreground can represent sin and the destruction of worldly possessions, the glass vase and the grass the fragility of human life, and the butterfly resurrection." The artist died in the home of her sister's son in Uitdam in December 1693.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Houbraken, Arnold. De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (a compilation of artists' biographies), 1718–20.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts