Anna Ruysch’s Rabbit’s teeth and Fringes
Most seventeenth-century artists did not sign their paintings. Today, however, the public wants
to know who the artist was. One way of finding out is by comparing styles. Only after years of
intensive study do different artists’ styles become recognisable. But sometimes the variations
between painters are so subtle that it takes an expert to identify them.
The previous issue of the Hoogsteder Journal featured a still life with flowers by Ernst Stuven. However, Fred Meijer, a still-life specialist with the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague, has suggested an alternative attribution. After meticulous comparison with other works he has come to the conclusion that this flower piece was painted by Anna Elisabeth Ruysch (1666-1741 or thereafter), the younger sister of the more famous Rachel Ruysch [ill.1]. We invited him to describe how he made the discovery.
Grapes with rabbit’s teeth
To be able to identify paintings by different masters a keen eye for detail is essential. As in the case of Anna Ruysch, only a handful of whose signed works have survived. One of these is a still life with fruit painted in 1685, when she was nineteen [ill.2].
Although the composition is reminiscent of Willem van Aelst and the method is similar to the latter’s velvet brushwork, there are some unique details which are typical of Ruysch. The soft, slightly hazy skin of the grapes, for example, is given a little extra lift with double highlights that resemble pairs of rabbit’s teeth. Only once has the painter added a horizontal line, revealing her intention to depict the reflection of a window. In the still life at Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, previously thought to have been by Ernst Stuven, the grapes are painted in precisely the same way [ill.1].
The unsigned painting at Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder also resembles another signed work by Anna Ruysch [ill.3]. Not only do the same rabbit’s teeth appear here, the cloth with the dainty fringe is also identical. Reason enough to attribute the flower painting at Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder to Anna Ruysch.
That the work was first associated with Ernst Stuven is not entirely illogical, however, as becomes clear if Ruysch’s painting is placed beside one of the former’s flower still lifes [ill.4]. There are indeed similarities in the compact arrangement of the roses and the tulips with their feeble, drooping petals. However, the rendering of texture is softer and flows more easily in Stuven’s flowers, while the structure of the bouquet is generally fuller and more monumental. Anna Ruysch’s early compositions have a more reticent, sober effect.
Still lifes by Anna Ruysch, who probably painted purely for pleasure, are extremely rare. It is therefore surprising that another work at Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder may also be attributable to the same artist. It is a woodland still life of flowers, insects and reptiles in a rustic setting [ill.5].
The most noticeable of the flowers – a poppy and two daisies – are almost identical to those featured in a signed painting by Anna Ruysch in Karlsruhe [ill.6], which is in turn almost entirely copied from one of the few works known by Abraham Mignon of Utrecht. Once again, it is the details that count. The daisy petals are broken in the same crisp manner in the Hoogsteder painting as they are in the Karlsruhe work. Mignon bent his petals with greater subtlety and depicted the other petals less rigidly.
Flower painters on Bloemgracht
Why then are the styles of Anna Ruysch, Ernst Stuven, Rachel Ruysch and Willem van Aelst so similar? The reason is simple.
Rachel and Anna Ruysch were daughters of Frederick Ruysch, a renowned professor of anatomy and botany. The two sisters were born in The Hague, but moved as children to Amsterdam. There, Rachel apparently took lessons from the still life artist Willem van Aelst. Although no record remains, it seems likely that the younger sister, Anna, also took lessons from the same painter.
Appropriately, the Ruysch family lived on Bloemgracht (Flower canal). And also living on that same canal was Ernst Stuven, who had also had lessons from Willem van Aelst. Hardly surprising then that the work of all four painters should reveal such similarities.
In this period, moreover, it was quite acceptable to copy flowers and plants from other artists without being accused of plagiarism. Unlike today’s artists, painters were not primarily concerned with originality but with as fine as possible a result. If borrowing from a neighbour’s painting would improve a work, there was no reason not to do so. Only a few still life painters had their own recognisable style, and these were soon emulated. Many artists were like chameleons, changing styles to suit the circumstances.
This was not a major issue for the seventeenth-century audience. What really mattered were the artistic qualities, and these are present in abundance in Anna Ruysch’s work.
Paintings by Anna Ruysch are extremely rare. To date less than ten works have been attributed to the artist. Besides resulting from her failure to sign her work, this is also a consequence of her manner being so similar to that of her colleagues.
Nevertheless, careful analysis of the style of her still lifes enables us to identify her paintings, to the delight of today’s art collectors. Whether Anna Ruysch would have wished this is a moot point. Perhaps she would have enjoyed her paintings being ascribed to her mentor.
Still Life with Grapes, Peaches and Snail
canvas, 34.3 x 30.5 cm,
signed and dated: A Ruysch 1685.
Photo: Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), The Hague
Tulips and Roses in a Vase on a Marble Table
canvas, 53.5 x 45 cm.
Previously attributed to Ernst Stuven.
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder.