Rachel Ruysch, Amsterdam’s Pallas and Minerva of the Amsterdam IJ

‘When a work by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) appears on the art market, as still happens from time to time, it creates a sensation.’ This was the opening sentence in the January 2000 edition of the magazine Kunstschrift entirely devoted to Rachel Ruysch. Hoogsteder and Hoogsteder currently have one of this feted artist’s flower still lifes. A sensation!

The very fact that a painting by Rachel Ruysch appears on the market is enough to cause a furore. But is it that Rachel Ruysch painted so much better than her colleagues, or is it that her work is so scarce? The truth is that Rachel is different, she has something special.

Exquisite flowers
Along with winter landscapes and marine pictures, flower still lifes are among the best loved genres of seventeenth-century painting. In this time of urbanisation, flowers, gardens and outdoor life are enjoying enormous popularity and Rachel’s pictures satisfy this longing for nature. Flowers also play an important role in present-day interiors, which are frequently graced with sumptuous bouquets arranged in the style of Rachel Ruysch. Indeed, her seventeenth-century pictures are perfectly in keeping with current fashions. Nonetheless, Rachel’s choice of subject can only partly account for her popularity: after all, the seventeenth century produced many flower painters.

The Amsterdam Pallas
Rachel Ruysch enjoyed great fame during her long life. Her contemporaries sang her praises, using epithets such as Hollants Kunstwonder (Holland’s art prodigy) and Onze vernuftige Kunstheldin (Our subtle art heroine), and called her the Onsterflyke Y-Minerf (Immortal Minerva of the Amsterdam IJ).

To become a famous painter in the seventeenth century it was necessary first and foremost to be able to paint well, and Rachel Ruysch could certainly do that. She commanded a virtuoso technique coupled with a masterly feeling for composition; her palette was soft and harmonious and she had a remarkable ability to render textures. The skill with which she captured the waxiness of the rose or tulip leaves, for example, creates the feeling that one could actually reach out and touch the smooth, fleshy surfaces. She paid particular attention to the treatment of leaves; for her they were just as important as the painting of the blooms. Details such as cool morning dewdrops, insects and butterflies, animate her bouquets without detracting from the composition as a whole.

Holland’s Art Wonder
Partly through the abundant use of green, Rachel’s elegant loosely arranged bouquets stand in stark contrast to the stiff flower still lifes of the early seventeenth century. What is so remarkable about these naturalistic bouquets is that they seem totally spontaneous, whereas in compositional terms they have in fact been arranged with extreme refinement. In this respect the work of Rachel Ruysch is closer to that of eighteenth-century artists such as Jan van Huysum, Jan van Os and Johan Christiaan Roedig. Her palette and her use of a dark background, however, is typically seventeenth century. Indeed her style marks the transition from seventeenth- to eighteenth-century flower painting, and in that sense she is an art-historical phenomenon.

It is clear that Rachel Ruysch was blessed with an exceptional painterly technique. But there was something else: she also had an unrivalled artistic sensitivity. Her still lifes breathe softness and mystery, her flowers are tender and fragile, her lighting diffused. And at the same time her floral arrangements are exuberant with a restrained sense of drama and lively chiaroscuro effects. Rachel Ruysch’s way of looking is as exciting as her way of painting. It is tempting to see this as typically feminine: the perfect balance between passion and tenderness.

Immortal Minerva of the Amsterdam IJ
There is no doubt that as a woman Rachel Ruysch was in a class of her own. Her extraordinary talent is fully revealed when her work is compared with that of other women painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The majority of women artists of that time were ladies of noble background who painted as a pastime, or relatives of well-known painters who allowed their daughter, wife or sister to work in their studio. Rachel and her talented sister Anna were exceptions, as were Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster, Michaƫlina Woutiers and Maria van Oosterwijck. In 1993 the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem mounted a highly acclaimed exhibition, with accompanying catalogue, entirely devoted to Judith Leyster (1609-1660). Now that a monograph on Rachel Ruysch is to be published shortly, a solo exhibition showcasing her work will undoubtedly follow. At the moment there is considerable public interest in Rachel Ruysch. Her work featured in the major retrospective exhibition * Still Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550-1720 that was mounted in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1999, as well as in the exhibition Each their own Reason: Women Artists in Belgium and the Netherlands 1500-1950 that was on view until 4 June 2000 in the Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Arnhem.

Rachel Ruysch’s work does not often appear on the market. Although her oeuvre embraces some 250 to 300 pictures, the majority are in museums or private collections. The rare appearance of a flower still life on the art market is in itself no sensation. But Rachel, the working mother, the Amsterdam Pallas, Holland’s Art Prodigy, is a sensational painter.

Rachel Ruysch
Rachel Ruysch most probably inherited her interest in nature from her father, Frederik Ruysch, the famous botanist and anatomist. Frederik was also an amateur painter and recorded his botanical discoveries in flower still lifes. In this artistic climate it is hardly surprising that two of his three daughters, Rachel and Anna, emerged as flower painters. From around 1679 to 1683 Rachel, probably together with her sister, studied under Willem van Aelst (1626-1683). After his death in 1683, Rachel made her own way. In 1693 she married the painter and lace dealer Jurriaen Pool with whom she had ten children. In contrast to her fellow painter Judith Leyster, Rachel continued to work despite her duties as a wife and mother. She always maintained that she had brought up her children single handed, and yet that period was the time of her greatest artistic creativity.

Her earliest paintings date from around 1680 and her last work is dated 1747, when she was 83 years old. With an oeuvre of more than 250 pictures, this means that she must have produced at least an average of five paintings a year. Even when she and her husband were court painters to the Elector Palatine Johan Wilhelm between 1708 and 1716 she managed to continue to satisfy the demands of Dutch collectors. No mean feat, if one considers the time involved in meticulously reproducing such a huge variety of flowers.

    Willem van Aelst

    Vase of Flowers

    Signed and dated 1658
    Canvas, 57.8 x 45.7 cm
    Private collection
    [Exhib: Still Life Paintings in the Netherlands 1550-1720, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1999, no. 60]

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    Jan van Huysum

    Flowers in a Vase on a Balustrade in Front of a Garden

    Signed, c. 1730
    Panel, 80 x 61 cm
    Private collection
    [Exhib: Still Life Paintings in the Netherlands 1550-1720, Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1999, no. 74]

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    Rachel Ruysch

    The Hague 1664 - 1750 Amsterdam

    Summer Flowers in a Vase

    Canvas, 56.5 x 48.6 cm
    Signed : Rachel Ruysch
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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    Rachel Ruysch

    Vase of Flowers

    Signed, c. 1730
    Canvas, 88 x 86.3 cm
    Private collection
    [P. Taylor, Bloemstillevens in de Gouden Eeuw, Waanders 1995, ill. no. 116]

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