Rachel Ruysch’s (1664-1750) success was helped by two factors: her choice to paint floral still lifes and her privileged family background. She is generally ranked as the greatest flower painter of the early 18th century, alongside Jan van Huysum (1682-1749). The merit of her painting was appreciated by both art lovers and botany devotees. Let’s discover how she earned her fame and built her career.
Rachel Ruysch and Her Family
There were very few artists (of either gender) that enjoyed such auspicious circumstances as Rachel Ruysch. Rachel got her artistic know-how from the family on her mother’s side. Her mom Maria Post (c. 1643-1720), came from a dynasty of artists. Her uncle Frans Post (1612-1680) was the arch-painter of Brazilian flora and fauna, while her father Pieter Post (1608-1669) was an esteemed Renaissance architect.
Her father, Frederik Ruysch (1639-1731), was a professor of botany in the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. Furthermore, he practiced surgery and taught anatomy. The famous group portrait The Anatomy Lesson, painted by Adriaen Backer (c. 1635-1684), shows Frederik Ruysch performing a dissection on the body of a criminal. The painting became popular due to the interest of tourists on the Grand Tour visiting Holland.
Frederik Ruysch’s high status in the scientific community of both Holland and Europe earned him a resounding reputation in Amsterdam society. He was even a member of the Royal Society of Science in London. The first affluent residency the family acquired was on the Bloemgracht (or the Flower Canal). In the seventeenth century, it was considered the most beautiful canal in the city and it was a place many artists, professors, and doctors called home. It is therefore no happenstance that Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Willem van Aelst (1627-1683) rented their studios on the Bloemgracht. It was in such an environment that the three children of the family—Hendrik, Rachel, and Anna—came of age.
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The Upbringing and Training of the Ruysch Sisters
The firstborn took after the father and became a physician. Rachel and Anna were trained as painters. Although it was not a common career path for a woman, becoming a painter was not frowned upon. According to Renaissance art critics, it was actually a suitable activity for a woman to paint still lives. This hierarchy of painting genres was based on the Aristotelian concept of imitation. In this context, imitation was a process of mental synthesis of both the observable work and preceding art. Therefore, it required acuity and a solid education.
The hierarchy of genres went like this: first came history painting, depicting Bible episodes, myths, or major events, then came portraits and landscapes, and, lastly, still life works.
As such, still life painting was thought to be best fitted for a woman. It required only manual skill and good observation and not much else.
In the case of Rachel and Anna Ruysch (1666-1754), the choice for floral still lives was dubbed by their father’s involvement with botany and his privileged position in the establishment of the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. Frederik observed Rachel’s precocious talent, and when she turned 18, arranged for her to be trained by their neighbor, the flower painter Willem van Aelst. He was one of the most esteemed and prolific Dutch still life painters of the seventeenth century.
Although Rachel is now seen as the most representative female still life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, she had strong predecessors. The most notable ones are the accomplished Maria van Oosterwjck (1630-1693), who painted flower pieces of outstanding quality but of a modest quantity, and Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a famous naturalist and botanical illustrator.
It is often assumed that both Rachel and her younger sister Anna were trained by Willem van Aelst and Maria Sibylla Merian.
While Rachel’s career is documented in detail by a biographer who interviewed her in her last years, Anna’s story is harder to grasp. We know, however, that unlike her older sister, she painted very little after her union with paint dealer Isaak Hellenbroek. Like Judith Leyster, she became involved with the family business and left painting behind.
Rachel or Anna Ruysch?
At first glance, there are not many differences between a still life made by Rachel and one made by Anna. In fact, most of her works have been traditionally assigned to Rachel. Since it appears that Anna painted for pleasure rather than for business, counting her works is very strenuous.
Despite owing a lot to Rachel’s approach, Anna showed some distinctive characteristics. One such feature was her impasto application of painting and her preference for more lavish decorative details.
Much like their teacher Willem van Aelst, Anna liked to add ornate vases and rich drapes to accompany the flower or fruit. The marble ledge element and the shiny golden fringe are also more indebted to Van Aelst than to Rachel. Anna and Ruysch also differed in arranging flowers. Anna often depicted numerous striped tulips, while Rachel never included more than one.
Nonetheless, both sisters usually painted their still lifes in a pair. Oftentimes one of the pendants depicts flowers, while the other brandishes a luxurious arrangement of fruit and vegetables.
Moreover, their combination of scientific illustration took flower still life painting to a new level.
Ruysch’s Fictitious Flower Compositions
Ruysch, like any other still-life painter, put together arrangements that would not be spotted in nature. In her floral pieces, we can admire flowers blooming in different seasons. Before the opening of the botanical garden in Amsterdam, these flowers were in fact growing on separate continents, too. Her later compositions, like the one exhibited in the Mauritshuis, are often surrounded by negative space. This creates a conveying illusion of depth and tridimensionality. Compared to her earlier floral pieces composed on a forest bed, the mature still lifes have a timeless bearing.
Dutch Embarrassment of Riches in a Still Life
Beyond the flower still life, Rachel Ruysch also depicted colonial booty. Traditionally, still-lives have portrayed the wide range of luxury goods that Europeans brought from the Americas.
In a still-life of rather unusual character, Ruysch graciously brandishes her scientific acumen inherited from her father.
Ruysch’s forest still life from the Uffizi Gallery is one such instance. In this autumn-themed still life, Ruysch brings together a range of produce that had only been around Northern Europe for a century. Other than the prominent grapes and peaches, we see a squash, American chestnuts, and a corncob. These vegetables were part of the Columbian exchange and were seen as luxurious by the European colonialists. Rachel Ruysch therefore portrays more than the autumn harvest. She puts together familiar fruits next to exotic vegetables. In other words, she sets a global table, adorned by a bird’s full nest, a red admiral butterfly, a lizard, and a white-lipped snail.
Rachel Ruysch’s Lifelong Success and Legacy
Rachel Ruysch was by any standard one of the most accomplished Dutch painters. Painting between the ages of 15 and 83, she produced hundreds of paintings that never fell out of favor.
During her lifetime, one of her flower pieces was worth more than 1200 guilders, while a history painting by Rembrandt never achieved more than 500 guilders. The reason for this was her outstanding skill, dubbed by the scientific character of her ways of representation.
Her paintings were an atlas of all sorts, portraying plants, flowers, insects, fungi, and all sorts of curiosa that both art collectors and science aficionados were willing to pay fortunes for.
Despite having plenty of competition within the still life market, Rachel was the favorite of illustrious patrons. She was even employed as a court painter in Dusseldorf.
Rachel Ruysch was one of the first women painters who entered the canon of art history before the feminist revolution. Virtually any museum of old masters paraded at least one still-life painting made by her. Hopefully, the current interest in female artists will only stretch her fame further. The growing interest in women’s creative production has, however, brought forth the artistic contribution of her sister Anna Ruysch.