Rachel Ruysch's Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Rachel Ruysch's Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase

At first glance, Rachel Ruysch's small panel depicts a handful of flowers gathered at random from a cottage garden and thrust artlessly into a vase, a thing of charm and beauty but no more than an aspect of everyday life and a decoration for an urban Dutch house. However, art of this caliber is seldom so simple. It is designed to make the viewer stop and think.

A Masterpiece of Artifice

Ruysch has composed her bouquet with care to create a feeling of movement from the rose at the lower left to the triad of roses and poppies at the center and upward to the right to the iris at the top. A subtle range of pinks, blues, and purple is enlivened by splashes of orange. The dark background and energetic curving forms are like traditional seventeenth-century flower paintings, but here on the cusp of the eighteenth (1716), its playfulness and asymmetry look forward to the burgeoning Rococo. Overall, the composition seems natural and unstrained, but flower arrangers who try to reproduce Ruysch's floral nosegays have to prop them up with hidden wires and supports; they are masterpieces of artifice.

There are several clues to tell us that this was composed in the studio and not taken from life. Prosperous Holland was the world's largest importer of newly discovered and exotic plants; Ruysch's father Frederik was a professor of botany, a collector of rare plants, and head of Amsterdam's Botanical Gardens. He invented a process of preserving botanical specimens so that they could be drawn and painted in detail before they faded. As a teenager, his daughter helped to illustrate and catalogue his collection and thus jumpstarted her painting career.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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