CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rachel Ruysch, Forest recess with flowers

Exhibition: 14 December 2004 - 1 January 2009


Sternberg Palace
Hradčanské nám. 15
CZ-118 00 Prague

From the museum website

Work of the Season

Rachel Ruysch (1664 Amsterdam – 1750 Amsterdam) was among the few women of her time involved in painting on a constant and professional basis. She specialized in painting flowers and other natural objects. Rachel grew up in Amsterdam in the family of the pre-eminent scholar Frederik Ruysch, who was a professor of surgery, anatomy and botany. Her father‘s interest in natural history familiarized the young Rachel with the remarkable world of nature, and he encouraged her artistic aspirations. At the age of fourteen, Rachel began to study with the renowned still-life painter Willem van Aelst. Soon, however, she became a sought-after and respected artist in her own right. At the time there was a growing interest in the natural history of the New World, and because of this Rachel painted rare specimens of flora and fauna from overseas, as well as the flowers, butterflies and beetles of Europe. She took an avant-garde approach to still-life depictions of flowers in her selection of both subjects and painting methods, enabling her to perfectly capture the shape and colours of the plants. Paintings by Rachel Ruysch were admired by collectors and art lovers, as well as by natural historians. The young artist‘s extraordinary talents were also noticed by the prominent art collector, Palatine Elector Johann Wilhelm, to whom she delivered many of her new works. Rachel‘s first biographer Jan van Gool wrote that she was still painting as late as 1748, at the age of eighty-four, and enjoying good health and eyesight.

In the second half of the 17th century, forest undergrowth vistas represented a new type of Netherlandish painting. Rachel was inspired by the work of her older colleague, at that time already renowned artist, Jan Davidszoon de Heem. She was intrigued by his forest-floor scenes, featuring an old tree covered with a cluster of fresh colourful flowers surrounded by butterflies and small insects. In 1685, Rachel painted her Forest Recess with Flowers (Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen) in which she was inspired by several of Heem‘s motifs. The Prague painting was created a little later. In it, the artist employed her own characteristic rendering, repeating the diagonal composition of the painting surface, however emphasizing contrasts of light and shadow. In the selection of the objects of nature, she depicted not only well-known European species but also rare and unique specimens imported from the Netherlandish colonies in Surinam. These had been known in Europe for only a short time – such as the passionflower, Passiflora coerulea, or the large Hercules beetle, Dynastes hercules. The brilliant painting technique, combined with the sensitive and faithful rendering of both the subtlest details and the entire scene, satisfied the most demanding viewers – whether they were art connoisseurs or natural-history enthusiasts.

The work has an overtly Christian symbolical subtext: both the passionflower and the holy thistle were interpreted by Christians as references to Christ‘s martyrdom and to the painful fate of the Virgin Mary. Christ‘s earthly engagement was compared to the deeds of Hercules. In the painting, this connection is represented by the Hercules beetle climbing up the tree trunk, a metaphorical spiritual ascendance. Butterflies are the traditional symbol of the soul, and the frog – hiding in the forest undergrowths in winter and waking up again in spring – reminded contemporaries of Christ‘s Resurrection. Such symbolic meanings were unusual for works of a similar type in the late 17th century, and it is very probable that Rachel incorporated them into the painting upon the wish of the commissioners.

Rachel Ruysch‘s painting Festoon with Flowers and Fruit from the collections of the National Gallery in Prague is presented alongside the seasonal work for the purpose of comparison. It is one of the earliest of Ruysch’s works; she was only eighteen years old when she painted it. Unlike the Forest Recess with Flowers, the artist here selected subjects familiar from the work of other Netherlandish still-life painters active in the second half of the 17th century. In the painting, Ruysch applied motifs and techniques gained in the studio of her teacher Willem van Aelst, as well as from her study of the still-lifes of Jan Davidszoon de Heem. With masterful accuracy and in vivid colours, she depicted the flowers of the poppy, hollyhock, marigold and holly along with the rounded shapes of medlar fruits and apples, tied together and hung on a wall. In the utmost detail, the work depicts the perianth leaves of flowers and the subtle fibres of leaves, as well as the striking plasticity of the fruit and its surfaces, both matt and glossy. The contrasts of light and shadow typify the artist’s well-considered painting technique. After the completed restoration, these qualities of the artist’s work can finally stand out in their full beauty. The expressive calligraphic signature of the young painter testifies to her artistic self-confidence.