Ruysch’s compositions are characterised by strong curves, diagonal axes, and dramatic lighting: here, light falls on the flowers from bottom left to top right, leaving the closed peonies at the edge in shadow. Against the dark background, her sophisticated palette creates a flawless sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
Ruysch studied with the still life painter Willem van Aelst, but she developed the style of her teacher towards a more decorative manner and a lighter palette. The artist’s father – a celebrated anatomist, botanist, and collector – was head of Amsterdam's botanical garden, so she had a precise knowledge of flowers and insects, shown here by the caterpillars, the ant and the grasshopper in the foreground.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer… if asked to name an artist from the Dutch Golden Age, few people would mention Rachel Ruysch, yet she’s responsible for one of the Gallery’s best loved and most beautiful still lifes. Leah Kharibian asked curator Betsy Wieseman what makes the picture, 'Flowers in a Vase', and its little-known painter, so special.
Betsy Wieseman: Ruysch was a unique figure in part because of her innate talent, but also because of her training and her background, which is quite interesting. Her father, Frederick Ruysch, was a professor of anatomy and botany; he was a pharmacist, a surgeon; he was the head of the Amsterdam botanical garden, and in addition to that, he owned a personal collection of anatomical specimens and natural curiosities and he called it the ‘Museaum Ruyschianum’ – his own personal museum.
Leah Kharibian: And how does that affect the picture here, do you think? I mean, we’ve… I can see that we have, standing on a ledge, a glass vase in which we have a very beautiful collection of what look like fairly common or garden flowers – I mean, flowers that you might see anywhere, but nestling in amongst them are these insects, so we’ve… what can we see here?
Betsy Wieseman: Well, there are two caterpillars that I can see. I particularly like the one right in the foreground that’s just dangling from his thread and looking to land somewhere. It’s this wonderful little suggestion of movement. There’s a grasshopper on the table that looks about ready to spring to the other side and then nestled up between the rose and the peony is a wonderful spider and an ant on the petals of the rose.
Leah Kharibian: Oh, tiny, tiny ant… oh, I can just see that. Now the flowers that she’s picked here, they do seem to be the sort of flowers that you might grow in a cottage garden. There’s honeysuckle and columbine at the top and roses and there’s a big bud of a peony on the right-hand side, and apple blossom, that’s right isn’t it? And what are these orange flowers in the middle do we think?
Betsy Wieseman: Those are lilies and then to the left of that a marigold. And then I love the viburnum that comes up between them and it’s turned away from us so that the focus is on the underside of the leaf and those wonderful crinkles of the leaf. One of Ruysch’s most beautiful characteristics is her ability to render all these different textures and her use of light and shadow to bring the flowers towards us. To really create an illusion of three dimensions within the bouquet.
Leah Kharibian: I’m right in thinking that this is quite an early piece of hers, isn’t it?
Betsy Wieseman: It is. She was probably about 20 maybe 25 when it was painted, so just after she’d completed her training. What’s fascinating about Ruysch is that she goes on to become one of the most important and successful painters of the early 18th century. She was the court painter to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine, based in Düsseldorf. She didn’t actually live in Düsseldorf, but she would send her paintings there and she was also patronised by princes and rulers throughout Europe – so really a unique position in the early 18th century. And on her death in 1750, there was an entire volume of verses written by various poets throughout the Netherlands, lauding her and praising her paintings, which I think was really unique. The other fascinating thing was that she had quite a family life as well. She was married in her 20s to another artist – not quite so successful as she herself – and between them they had 10 children.
Leah Kharibian: 10? 10 children?
Betsy Wieseman: 10 children.
Leah Kharibian: So there’s all this extraordinary talent, and she manages 10 children as well and she lives to a ripe old age. She doesn’t sound like the picture that we have in our mind’s eye perhaps of the downtrodden female artist, I mean she seems to go against type, or is it the case that it was possible to have a career?
Betsy Wieseman: I think she was unique and I often wonder whether it was because, or in spite of the fact that she had 10 children that she became such a successful artist. Maybe her studio was her refuge!
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Nineteen, May 2008