Rachel Ruysch, was a still-life painter from the Northern Netherlands. She specialized in flowers, inventing her own style and achieving international fame in her lifetime. Due to a long and successful career that spanned over six decades, she became the best documented woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age.
Rachel Ruysch was born on 3 June 1664 in The Hague to the scientist Frederik Ruysch and Maria Post, the daughter of the architect Pieter Post. Her father was a professor of anatomy and botany. He had a vast collection of animal skeletons, and mineral and botany samples which Rachel used to practice her drawing skills. At a young age she began to paint the flowers and insects of her father’s collection.
In 1679, at age fifteen, Ruysch was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a prominent flower painter in Amsterdam. Besides painting technique he taught her how to arrange a bouquet in a vase so it would look spontaneous and less formalized. This technique produced a more realistic and three-dimensional affect in her paintings. By the time Ruysch was eighteen she was producing and selling independently signed works.
Art historians consider Ruysch to be one of the most talented still life artists of either sex. By her death at age 86 she had produced hundreds of paintings, of which more than 250 have been documented or are currently attributed to her. Her dated works establish that she painted from the age of 15 until she was 83, a few years before her death. Historian are able to establish this with certainty because she proudly signed her age on her paintings.
Ruysch’s skill lay in the minute observation of each flower in an extremely naturalistic way, composed into an elaborate arrangement that would be very difficult to achieve in nature – the flowers would not support each other so well under such an arrangement. In common with most flower pieces from the last third of the 17th century, the colours of the flowers are much more carefully balanced than in the earlier pictures.
The symbolism of each flower was elaborately developed in the 17th century, but most of this concerned the introduction of a single flower into a Vanitas piece. Apart from Jan van Huysum, no 18th century flower painter matched the skill of Rachel Ruysch.
Ruysch enjoyed great fame and reputation in her lifetime. When she died in 1750, eleven poets paid her their respects with poems about her. In the 17th century the Dutch were very interested in flowers and gardening, so paintings that highlighted the beauty of nature were highly valued. This helped to build and maintain Ruysch’s clientele throughout her career. In her lifetime her paintings were sold for very high prices of up to 750-1200 guilders. In comparison, Rembrandt rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting in his lifetime.
In 1999 a painting by Ruysch was discovered in a farmhouse, and was sold at auction in Normandy for 2.9 million French francs, about US$508,000.