Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Bright and Bounded World: Exploring a Rachel Ruysch Still Life

The painting to the left bears the distinctive style of one of Europe’s most accomplished still-life artists, Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). The daughter of a Dutch naturalist, Ruysch studied with the professional artist Wilhelm van Aelst and became one of the few prominent female painters of the eighteenth century. She specialized in paintings of flowers, which her Dutch patrons valued for their beauty and as a symbol of gentility. Holland had by the sixteenth century developed a market in medicinal and aromatic blooms, and during the Netherlands’ age of maritime ascendancy, florists introduced rare and attractive foreign species (like the tulip) into the nation's market in decorative luxuries.

Flowers are ephemeral, but paintings can endure much longer. Ruysch completed at least 250 still-lifes during her sixty-year-long career, and her canvasses now grace museums and collections throughout Europe. The 1706 painting included here, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, shows both the artist’s technical virtuosity and her talent for spontaneity - for making her arrangements appear natural. The white carnations draw the viewer’s eye to the painting’s center, whence it can wander to the peripheries; the variegated tulips remind us of her homeland’s passion for that strain of flower; the violet morning glories provide chromatic contrast to the red peonies; and the grapes and pale peaches near the bottom of the painting offer variety of type and texture. The flowers’ stems bend and intertwine, providing dynamism to the composition, while some decline as though starting to wilt.

At the bottom of the picture, atop the table on which the bouquet’s vase sits, an inquisitive snail and a yellow-winged moth approach the fruit and flowers. Another, larger moth with black-speckled wings perches on one of the lower stems. Insects and snails feed on plant, and their presence suggests that the bouquet will not long go unmolested. Death always creeps on the edges of life, and in this painting the snail and moths place a temporal boundary around the beauty of the flowers, which will be eaten if they do not decay first. Ruysch didn’t just include these little predators as symbols of vanitas, however. She developed an interest in entomology early in her career, and included insects in many of her paintings. Her buggy subjects she draws with as much grace and precision as the other parts of the bouquet, indicating that in the little worlds she renders on canvas, Ruysch intends to make mortality just as attractive as beauty.    

(My thanks to Dr. Susan Livingston for her essential advice on this post.)  

(Above painting via the Web Gallery of Art,