Rachel Ruysch (June 3, 1664 — Amsterdam, August 12, 1750) was a Dutch artist who specialized in still-life paintings of flowers, one of only three significant women artists in Dutch Golden Age painting, of whom Maria van Oosterwijk was also a flower painter, and Judith Leyster mainly not (the German botanic illustrator Maria Sybille Merian also moved to Amsterdam).
She was born in The Hague, but moved to Amsterdam when she was three. Her father Frederik Ruysch, a famous anatomist, and botanist, was appointed a professor there. He gathered a huge collection of rarities in his house. She assisted her father decorating the prepared specimen in a liquor balsamicum with flowers and lace. At fifteen Ruysch was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a prominent Delft painter, known for his flower paintings. In 1693, she married a portrait painter, Juriaen Pool (1666–1745), with whom she had ten children. Her sister Pieternel was married to Jan Munnicks, a young man who drew flowers in the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. Ruysch was extremely pious.
In 1701 Ruysch was inducted into the painters' guild in The Hague. Several years later Ruysch was invited to work for the court in Düsseldorf and serve as court painter to Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. She remained working for him and his wife from 1708 until the prince's death in 1716. Also Jan Weenix and Adriaen van der Werff were invited to deliver paintings, after Eglon van der Neer died. In 1723 she won the lottery. Ruysch kept painting for her prominent clients.
Ruysch lived eighty-five years and her dated works establish that she painted from the time she was a young woman until she was an octogenarian. About a hundred paintings by her are known. The background of the paintings are usually dark. Ruysch was also noted for her paintings of detailed and realistic crystal vases.
Ruysch practiced her art in the Baroque period of art history. Baroque art was a style that arose in Europe around 1600 as a reaction against the Mannerist style, an intricate and formulaic approach that dominated the late Renaissance period. The Baroque style was less complex and more realistic. Flower painting emerged as part of the movement and was especially popular in the late 17th century. Factors influencing its emergence included the growing and more affluent merchant and middle classes, as well as the growing interest in plants that resulted from the developing science of botany. At the time, northern Europe witnessed the importation of many new and exotic plants. In particular, in Holland, Ruysch's homeland, the Dutch developed a wide variety of flowers and gardening became increasingly popular. Often, gardeners would commission artists to paint pictures of their best or rarest flowers.
Women artists were especially attracted to painting still life. However, artistic painting was considered a male province. The most famous Dutch painter at the time was Rembrandt, who was the leading portraitist in Amsterdam. During the era, artistic efforts were divided into two categories: "greater" and "lesser." The greater categories included religious and historical themes. Among the "lesser" categories were still life, portraits and landscapes, and these were considered areas appropriate for women. Most other women who were painting in this era were members of noble families or were relatives of well-known male painters, and they painted as a hobby. It was widely believed in those days that women were incapable of artistic genius.
Because of those prevailing attitudes, it is noteworthy that Ruysch, a woman, would come to be such a highly regarded artist. She managed to make her mark in the predominantly male world of the Dutch Old Masters. She was viewed as one of the greatest flower painters of either gender. She stood out from most female contemporaries because she was more ambitious and her paintings were startlingly realistic and, at the same time, symbolic. Only a small number of other women artists shared Ruysch's ambition and talent and were held in high esteem. Among them were Anna Ruysch, Clara Peeters, Judith Leyster, Michaëlina Woutiers and Maria van Oosterwijck
But Ruysch was unique even among the other highly regarded women painters of her time. Her paintings were more than just realistic and scientifically accurate depictions. Ruysch possessed excellent skill and technique. But she enhanced her technique with an artist's sensitivity and sensibility. Like her contemporaries, Ruysch created bouquets that were dramatically lit against dark backgrounds, but Ruysch's backgrounds were more revealing, as they suggested an architectural setting. She used form, color and textures in ways that were innovative, bold, and dynamic. Moreover, her works displayed a meticulous attention to detail. She paid particular attention to leaves, which she felt were just as important as the flowers.
Her open, diagonal compositions contrasted with the more compact and symmetrical arrangements that the other early 17th century women painters employed. Ruysch's compositions were asymmetrical and much more lively. They featured wildly curving stems that reached high into the air or drooped over the sides of the vase. Her flower arrangements were more loose. They appeared more spontaneous. The arrangements seemed less formalized, but this informality was carefully designed to achieve the ultimate effect. The end result was that her works possessed more energy and created the illusion of immediate realism. A viewer could almost reach out and touch her bouquets.
A representative example of her work is "Flower Still Life," which depicts a large arrangement of flowers that rise and spill over the vase. Each stem and petal is portrayed in intricate detail in bright colors. Against the dark background, the flowers seem almost revealed in a photographic light.
In this way, her works were similar to paintings done by eighteenth-century artists such as Jan van Huysum, Jan van Os and Johan Christiaan Roedig. In fact, with her innovative techniques, Ruysch employed a style that can be seen as a transition from 17th-century to 18th-century flower painting.
Despite the fact that flower paintings today are regarded as a lesser form of artistic expression, Ruysch's reputation as a great painter remains intact. During the 20th century, there was great interest in her works. Her paintings were featured in major exhibitions in Europe including "Still Life Paintings from the Netherlands 1550 - 1720," at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1999, and "Each their own Reason: Women Artists in Belgium and the Netherlands 1500 - 1950" at the Museum voor Moderne Kunst in Arnhem in 2000.
Ruysch died in 1750 at age 86. During her lifetime, she was fortunate to gain widespread fame, and her works were highly valued. Among her contemporaries, she was called Hollants Kunstwonder ("Holland's art prodigy") and Onze vernuftige Kunstheldin ("Our subtle art heroine"), and the Onsterflyke Y-Minerf ("Immortal Minerva of the Amsterdam"). When she died, 11 contemporary poets paid her tribute
In January 2000, the art magazine Kunstschrift devoted an entire issue to Ruysch and her work, proclaiming, "When a work by Rachel Ruysch appears on the art market, as still happens from time to time, it creates a sensation." Although she produced more than 250 paintings in her life, only about 100 are known to still exist, and most of these are in museums or private collections. When any of her paintings do appear on the market, it makes headlines. For instance, in 1999, a Ruysch still-life painting of flowers with a bird's nest was found behind the door of a country house. The owner of the house and the painting had no idea of the value of the treasure that was stowed away so unceremoniously. Fortunately, the painting was found by an art auctioneer. When it went on sale at an auction at Deauville, Normandy, in January 1999, the painting went for 2.9 million French francs, or the equivalent of $508,000.