Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Rachel Ruysch, Still-Life Artist

Rachel Ruysch (born 3 June 1664)

Let's just say I've never been a fan of minimalism--"less is more" is not for me. More is more, as far as I am concerned. 

And, as an avid gardener, that was my working principle--if three or four tulips were good, a bed of fifty was better. And so for flowers indoors--no ikebana arrangements in my house. One iris and a twisted branch? How about a vase of two dozen irises instead???
Rachel Ruysch, c. 1706,
portrait by Godfried Schalcken

So I have always been a huge fan of the still-life paintings of Rachel Ruysch--lush, exuberant, ample, overflowing . . . 

According to the Grove Dictionary of Art, she is "widely regarded as the most gifted woman in the history of the subject." Not sure why they limit this assessment to woman . . . 

Born in The Hague on 3 June 1664, Rachel Ruysch was the daughter of a noted scientist, Frederick Ruysch, who was an anatomist and botanist. 

In addition to his studies of human anatomy, he developed embalming techniques and opened a museum for displaying preserved specimens (it sounds creepy, but he made dioramas of his preserved human specimens, especially infants, and they were very popular) as well as items from his collection of flowers and insects. Important for his daughter, he was an amateur artist, some of his own illustrations of his botanical discoveries used in his publications.

Ruysch's mother, Maria Post, was the daughter of Pieter Post, a Dutch artist. He began his career as painter of landscapes and battle scenes, eventually becoming an architect noted as one of the creators of Dutch Baroque style.

When Ruysch was three years old, her wealthy and prominent family moved to Amsterdam. While she was still a child, she began painting some of the specimens in her father's collection, in particular insects and flowers. 

Summer Flowers in a Vase

At age fifteen, she began formal instruction with the painter Willem van Aelst--she was apprenticed to him in 1679. She continued her training with van Aelst until his death in 1683. One of the lessons she learned from him was how to create the same kind of full, less-formal bouquets depicted in his, and then her, still-life paintings of flowers.

While with van Aelst, she had the opportunity not only to become familiar with the work of Maria van Oosterwijck, a still-life painter whose workshop was near Aelst's studio, but she knew other women artists--among them Maria Moninckx, Alida Withoos, and Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff, all of whom specialized in botanical painting.

She seems also to have taught her younger sister, Anna Ruysch, to draw and paint. (There seems to be some debate about whether Anna herself studied with van Aelst, but little debate about whether Rachel taught her, since Anna's surviving paintings show some of her sister's unique stylistic details.)

Vase of Flowers
In 1693, Ruysch married a portrait painter, Juriaen Pool. Even after her marriage--and although the couple had ten children!--Ruysch continued her career as a painter, something that many women artists did not do once they married. (As I wrote just a couple of days ago, Sarah Curtis Hoadly quit painting professionally after her marriage, and that seems also to have been the case for Rachel Ruysch's sister, Anna Ruysch.)

Ruysch and her husband moved to the Hague in 1701, where both became members of the city's professional guild of painters, the Guild of St. Luke. Several years later, in 1708, the couple relocated to Dusseldorf, where they became court painters to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine of Bavaria. They returned to Amsterdam after the elector's death in 1716, though in the mean time, Rachel Ruysch continued to paint for her Dutch patrons. 

Rachel Ruysch's final known work was painted in 1747, when she was eight-three years old. She died three years later, in 1750. Unlike many women artists, she did not need to wait centuries for a revival of interest in her work. Throughout her career, she was extraordinarily successful.

For an excellent biographical essay on Ruysch, I recommend Luuc Kooijmans's wonderful entry in the Online Dictionary of Dutch Women (click here) or Christopher D. M. Atkins's entry from the Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World (click here). 

There's a glorious collection of her work in the online gallery at ArtUK (click here).

Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip

Update, 12 January 2023: A helpful friend of the blog has just forwarded information about a recent  exhibition at the Mauritshuis, "In Full Bloom," featuring floral still-life paintings, including those by Rachel Ruysch (and Maria van Oosterwijck). For information about the exhibition itself (February to June 2022), this link to the Mauritshuis is still working, and though it is too late now to see the paintings in person, there are a couple of great videos. You may also like this review of the exhibition from ArtNet.