A painting by Dutch flower still life painter Rachel Ruysch has become part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Ireland. Vase of Flowers with an Ear of Corn (1742) is on display in Room 39 and can be viewed by the public for free as part of Ireland’s national art collection.
Dr Lizzie Marx, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland, said, “We are delighted to have acquired this beautiful still-life by Rachel Ruysch, as the first painting by a woman artist in the Dutch collection. Ruysch had a long and outstanding career that spanned from the late-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. This work was painted when she was 78 years old, where every facet of the artist’s skills is condensed onto the small canvas, from the flourish of the blooms to the delicate rose thorns.”
Rachel Ruysch is regarded as one of the best Dutch flower still life painters of her time, and one of the most important women artists in the history of art. She trained under the prolific naturalist and skilled botanical artist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), and along with her sister Anna Ruysch (1666-1754), they were both apprenticed under the still life painter Willem van Aelst (1627-after 1687). The sisters’ interest in flowers must have come from their father, the renowned botanist and anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). In 1693 Rachel Ruysch married the portraitist Juriaen Pool II (1666-1745), and together they had ten children, sadly losing many of them before they reached adulthood. By 1699, she was offered membership to the Confrerie Pictura, the artists’ society in The Hague, as their first female member.
Ruysch’s career was prolific for even the most distinguished of artists in the period. She produced works for foreign nobles and aristocrats, namely the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, the Elector Palatine of Düsseldorf, and Florentine Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici. In her lifetime her paintings were sold for prices as high as 750-1200 guilders; the cost of a comfortable Dutch house. Her artistic output diminished somewhat around 1725-1735, owing to her winning the jackpot in the Dutch lottery, totaling 60,000 guilders (€710,000 today). Subsequently, between 1738-1748/49, she made on average at least one painting a year. At her death, a collection of poems were written in her honor. No other artist of that period had every received such a tribute.
Rachel Ruysch completed Vase of Flowers with an Ear of Corn in her 78th year in 1742. Contrasting with the sombre, brooding sottobosco (forest floor) still lifes that constitute her earlier style of working, this painting reflects the cheerful, brighter approach of her later period. The bouquet consists of a medley of flowers including roses, narcissi, forget-me-nots, and anemones. Topping the arrangement is an exquisitely painted tiger tulip, which was historically the most coveted flower in the Dutch Republic. It is by no means coincidental that the best flower of the bunch is beside Ruysch’s signature and date; on the cusp of entering her eightieth year, Ruysch was entirely at ease with her artistic abilities. The scene is teeming with activity. The tulip’s leaf undulates, and its front petal opens to reveal the stamen. The blossoms appear to sway in the bouquet, and the papery husks of the ear of corn are almost audible. The most striking feature is in the foreground, where a stem of a rose has slipped out of the vase and appears to topple into our space. Ruysch tended to include insects in her paintings, as an allusion to decay. In this painting, not a single insect can be found.
Vase of Flowers with an Ear of Corn was painted during a particularly productive year, when Ruysch produced two further paintings. One is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other work is believed to be this painting’s pendant, whose whereabouts are presently unknown, depicting a bouquet of flowers complete with a pineapple. An interesting element to the painting is the inclusion of an ear of corn beside the vase. Corn features in Ruysch’s paintings of bounties of fruits and vegetables, however set beside a vase of flowers in this way is unique. This element demonstrates the extent of Ruysch’s abilities to paint beyond the floral idiom. The yellow tones further brighten the scene, and are emblematic of the course in which the genre will develop in the eighteenth century; a new era of bright, colorful, joyous still lifes.