Rachel Ruysch: the Grande Dame of floral still lives

Old Mistress paints eternal beauty

Let us take you back in time to the period between 1664 and 1750. Rachel Ruysch’s time. Rachel was a Dutch painter who specialised in still lives with flowers. She enjoyed international recognition and became the most famous female painter of the Dutch Golden Age. You can understand why we wanted to delve deeper into the story of this Grande Dame. Here we will tell you some more about her life story and where you can admire her work, thanks to the Online Dictionary of Dutch Women.

Artistic surroundings

Rachel Ruysch was born in The Hague, but the family moved to Amsterdam when she was still a baby because her father was hired to teach anatomy to the surgeons there. Her father became a renowned anatomist, particularly thanks to his development of a method of embalming with which he was able to make anatomy appealing to laymen as well. The children’s bodies he embalmed were so lifelike that one would swear they were merely asleep. He gathered together his embalmed bodies and put them on display along with various other ‘curiosities’ which included all sorts of rare insects and plants. His collection became one of the tourist attractions of Amsterdam. Visitors could admire his compositions in which the skeletons of foetuses were placed on ‘rocks’ of kidney and bladder stones and set amidst blood vessels inflated to look like tiny trees in order to portray allegorical scenes.

Rachel was the eldest child of Frederik Ruysch and Maria Post. As a little girl she had already shown an aptitude for drawing and painting, a talent undoubtedly inherited from her mother’s side of the family, which included several artists. Her grandfather, the architect Pieter Post, was the most famous of these. His brother was the painter Frans Post, particularly known for spending several years in Brazil with Prince Maurits of Nassau, and the landscapes he painted there. Rachel’s uncles Jan and Maurits Post drew and painted as well. But her father was also a competent draughtsman. He made drawings of his embalmings to illustrate his scientific publications, and he also indulged in painting, portraying the objects he had collected: insects and reptiles depicted amidst plants and trees. Such paintings had been introduced to Amsterdam by Otto Marseus van Schrieck, a painter from Nijmegen, who had worked at the royal courts of France and Tuscany. He painted snakes, snails, toads and insects lurking in dark corners between plants and shrubs. In Italy this genre was called sottobosco; in the Netherlands it was referred to as ‘bosgrondjes’, or woodland scenes.

Flowers and woodland scenes

By the time she was fourteen, Rachel Ruysch was painting animals and plants with such enthusiasm, diligence and skill that her parents gave her permission to study with a painter. This was not unheard of, but it was still highly unusual for a girl. Otto Marseus had died by this time, so Rachel was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, who was considered to be Amsterdam’s best still life painter. Van Aelst was an acquaintance of Otto Marseus (with whom he had worked in his younger years at the court of the Medicis in Florence), and he was a member of the circle in which her parents moved.

Under Van Aelst’s supervision, Rachel Ruysch initially concentrated on the woodland scenes like those painted by Marseus. Like her father, she worked with great precision and subtlety. After painting the basis of a composition and waiting for the paint to dry, Rachel took a very fine brush and added insects, blades of grass and tiny flowers. She strove to render her subjects as true to life as possible. When depicting woodlands she used small sponges dipped in paint to represent the structure of moss. Sometimes she even used real moss (as Marseus and Van Aelst had done) to make imprints. In her paintings she combined plants and animals that did not naturally occur together. She did not paint from nature, but from models from her father’s collection.

Apart from woodland scenes, she also started to specialise in compositions with flowers like those painted by Van Aelst and Jan Davidsz de Heem. Her flower paintings also featured imaginary compositions based on specimens from the botanical gardens (where her father taught botany) and preserved flowers from her father’s collection. Usually flowers were preserved by pressing and drying them between paper, but Frederik Ruysch was able to preserve flowers in such a way that they continued to look as if they were in bloom. This method of preservation enabled Rachel Ruysch to paint bouquets composed of flowers that bloomed in different seasons. She depicted them so faithfully that she soon made a name for herself. In the second half of the seventeenth century, flower paintings became increasingly fashionable and Rachel Ruysch profited from this.

Court painter

In the summer of 1695, Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine, visited Frederik Ruysch’s museum. On that occasion he undoubtedly saw paintings by Rachel, who had married the painter Jurriaan Pool. She had just given birth to her first child, but motherhood did not prevent her from continuing her career as a painter, whereas her younger sister Anna, who was also a gifted artist, had stopped painting when she got married. Rachel had become exceptionally successful by now. She was paid substantial sums for her flower still lives, and in 1699 she received the recognition of being elected to the ‘fraternity of artists’ Pictura in The Hague - the first woman to receive this honour.

Ruysch enjoyed commissions from wealthy clients and could focus on painting a limited number of works per year, devoting several months to each. Orders had to be placed with her long in advance. In 1708 she was offered the post of court painter to the Elector Palatine. By now the mother of a large family, she did not feel that she could move to Düsseldorf, and was therefore exempted from her Residenzpflicht, the obligation to live and work at court. This was not a unique arrangement: Adriaan van der Werf and Jan Weenix were also appointed court painter without having to make their homes in Düsseldorf. Rachel Ruysch received an annual salary, for which she was required to supply just one painting a year for the collection of the Elector and his wife.

She travelled to Düsseldorf a couple of times to deliver her work, but she continued to live in Wolvenstraat in Amsterdam with her husband and numerous children. Even though she was almost 30 when she married, she gave birth to ten children, the last of whom, a boy, was born when she was 47. She decided to call him Jan Willem after her patron, and the Elector and his wife agreed to act as his godparents. When Rachel Ruysch travelled to Düsseldorf to show them the child, Johann Wilhelm presented her son with a valuable medallion on a red ribbon. Rachel herself was given a 28-piece silver toilet set in a decorative toilet case, as well as six silver sconces.

In the spring of 1711, Ruysch was visited by a German scholar, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, who described her as a woman of forty, cultured but not very pretty. He happened to arrive when she had two recently completed paintings in her home, one of flowers and one of fruit. They were intended for Pieter de la Court van der Voort, a cloth merchant from Leiden, who paid 1,500 guilders for them, a sum many times greater than the average annual salary. Von Uffenbach thought them splendid, ‘with exceptionally delicate brushwork’. Jurriaan Pool claimed that his wife’s brushwork surpassed that of all masters past and present. At the time of Von Uffenbach’s visit, Rachel Ruysch was working on two small square panels for Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and father-in-law of the Elector, for which she received additional payment. Von Uffenbach said that Rachel was painting the background for these two pieces, and that ‘she sat there like a painter’. He further reported that she had ‘all kinds of birds’ nests, insects and suchlike lying around her’.

Jurriaan Pool was commissioned by the Elector to paint Rachel’s portrait. He turned it into a family portrait, painting Rachel and himself with Jan Willem showing the medallion he had been given by the Elector. Completed in 1716, it was already packed and ready for shipping when news arrived that the Elector had died. Ruysch thus lost her patron, but there was no need to despair, because she continued to receive plenty of commissions. From 1723 onwards the family had no financial worries at all. The States of Holland held lotteries from time to raise money. Jurriaan and Rachel Ruysch had already won two hundred guilders in one of those lotteries in 1713, but in December 1722 they and their son George bought a ten guilder ticket that won the first prize of 75,000 guilders.

Their son George did not enjoy his winnings for long. He died three years later at the age of 25. This was the second adult son that Rachel Ruysch and Jurriaan Pool had lost in the space of a few years. In 1720 their 22-year-old son Abraham had travelled to Guinea as an assistant in the employ of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) and died there shortly afterwards. Three other children had previously died young, and in 1718 their daughter Rachel Pool died at the age of fifteen. In early 1731 the couple lost their only remaining daughter, 35-year-old Maria Margaretha, leaving them with three sons.

Their eldest son, Frederik Ruysch Pool, continued to live at home.  In 1734 they agreed to let him sell his mother’s paintings. Frederik and the youngest son, Jan Willem, showed ‘good and Christian behaviour’, but Rachel Ruysch did not get along with Isaac, her second son, who kept a draper’s shop in Gasthuissteeg. In 1743 she concluded ‘not without the deepest sadness’ that ‘her son Isaac Ruysch Pool persisted in his irresponsible behaviour and treatment of his parents’.

Final years

Jurriaan Pool died at the age of 79 in October 1745. The discord between Rachel and her son Isaac continued until just before her death. It was not until 1749 that she could say that ‘the friendship between her and all her children is now completely restored’. Meanwhile she continued to paint. Like her father, who lived to be 92, she carried on working as long as she could. She was in her eighties when she was shown a flower painting by Jan van Huysum in which he had depicted the flowers against a bright background. Until then dark backgrounds had been used for floral works to suggest depth, but by painting more colourfully Van Huysum was able to use a lighter background. Rachel liked this arrangement ‘so much that she immediately tried it herself’.

The artists’ biographer Johan van Gool met Ruysch in 1748, when she was 84. ‘For a woman of such a ripe age’, he felt, she had ‘kept her mind and her appearance wonderfully well’. She received him very kindly and politely, talked about her career and showed him some of her works. Most of her paintings were abroad, but she was able to show him a painting started the year before which she still wanted to finish.

In 1750 she was celebrated with ‘Dichtlovers voor de uitmuntende schilderessen Mejufvrouwe Rachel Ruisch’ (Poems for the excellent painter Mistress Rachel Ruysch), which brought together verses that had been written about her works over the years. It was a unique gesture: never before had a Dutch artist been honoured in this way. Rachel Ruysch died that year on 12 October.

Rachel Ruysch in your home

If you are impressed by (the work of) this lady, you might want a Rachel Ruysch in your home. Take a look at the Rijksmuseum’s image bank and download a fantastic picture.