Rachel Ruysch was a Dutch flower painter who is known for her amazing detail and accuracy. She was the first financially successful artist of her time period, the Baroque period. She was born into a wealthy family that included artists, architects and scientists. (This is not surprising, as only wealthy women had access to the training needed to become an artist.)
Like most early women artists, her father gave her access to important training. Though in this case it wasn’t painting training, her father was a professor of surgery, anatomy and botany and a large collection of specimens.
As a girl, she would help him organize and catalog his collection and became fascinated with insects. Her father encouraged her to make careful observations of the natural world.
At about 14 or 15, she began to train with artist Willem van Aelst, a still life painter. (A still life painting is a grouping of objects, such as flowers, food, fruits, arranged on a table or surface. It doesn’t include any people.)
When Rachel was 29 years old, she married painter Juriaen Pool and they had ten children! While it was customary for married women of her social class not to work, she was so successful, and earned so much money, that she was able to continue.
At this time in the Netherlands, newly freed from Spain, people were becoming wealthy and they wanted to decorate their houses with small paintings to show their good taste.
While in the past, the only customers for art were the church, the king, or other nobility, at this time in the Netherlands, there was booming interest in still life paintings. Wealthy merchants wanted portraits, landscapes and genre paintings (scenes from everyday life).
While at first glance Rachel Ruysch’s paintings look pretty, when you look more closely, you see insects, holes in the leaves of flowers, a hidden face in an urn.
Many still life paintings include details to remind us that life is fleeting (and therefore to make the most of it, and live a good life). Her insects are all accurate, making her paintings of interest not only to art lovers, but to scientists as well.
You might imagine that she sat down in front of a vase of flowers and painted exactly what she saw, but we know that she didn’t because museums have collections of “studies” of various parts of paintings. A “study” is a drawing done in preparation of making a larger drawing or painting.
And of course, all the insects weren’t really there on the flowers right in that moment as she painted.
Another fun clue is that the flowers she painted were sometimes from all over the world, or would not have bloomed in the same season!
Her painting, Fruits and Insects sold for double what a painting by Rembrandt (a well known male painter) paintings sold for!
She made 250 paintings over 70 years, which is amazingly productive. She continued to paint until at least the age of 83.
According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “Despite the changes in popularity of flower paintings during the years since her death, Ruysch’s reputation has never waned.”
I read that she sometimes “signed” her paintings by hiding a tiny portrait of herself somewhere in the painting, such as in a reflection of a shiny silver container. While I looked and looked, I couldn’t find any images of this online. Since she was such a productive painter, her paintings are in museums all over the world, from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and many in between!
The next time you go to the art museum in the city near you, or when you’re on vacation, see if they have a painting by Rachel Ruysch, and if they do, look for a secret reflection! Look for insects, see what details you can find!
What are some great sources of information about women artists? There’s a book called Women Artists: An Illustrated History by Heller.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a large number of profiles of women artists on its site. And the Smithsonian Institution and Smithsonian Magazine may have articles on the artist you want to learn about.
And check your library!
Here’s a link to a post at the website of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, if you click on the painting, you can enlarge it and really look at the details.