Rachel Ruysch: Painter of the court and mother of 10 | National Gallery

Rachel Ruysch, as she is known in the Netherlands, was an extremely successful still life painter and she was also the best documented female painter of the early 18th century. She had a very long career, earned a lot of money for her paintings, and she managed to do all of that while being married and having 10 children to look after. Her mother was the daughter of a famous architect and her great uncle was the painter, Frans Post. Her father, Frederik Ruysch was a famous physician, a professor of anatomy, and a botanist. He was probably most famous for his private museum, where he showed his unusual collection of all kind of specimens. He had developed a form of embalmment, which he kept secret, which allowed him to preserve specimen’s body parts, flowers, insects, in a very lifelike state. I think this is something that inspired Rachel early in her life. We also know that she helped her father with preparing those specimens. Rachel had a clear advantage. She could paint flowers after they died because she had the specimens that were embalmed and she could also study them in the botanical garden when they were in bloom. She specialised in painting flower still lifes which was quite typical for female artists in the Netherlands, and there are several reasons for that. The objects were easy to come by. Female artists could even study the objects in their own household. They didn’t need to have any knowledge of anatomy. They were prevented from studying the male, especially nude figure. It was natural for them to choose a subject they could easily access. She learned with a flower still life painter in Amsterdam, Willem van Aeslt. And she took what she got from Willem van Aeslt painting very lifelike flower bouquets, but she developed it even further. Painting meticulous details in making a bouquet of flowers very very natural looking. We often have a spot of light hitting the flowers in the front of a bouquet, theatre like. There’s a lot of movement in her flowers, you almost want to touch them. Rachel paints flowers in a bouquet that wouldn’t normally bloom at the same time. For example, apple blossom, orange lilies. She would, for example, use real butterfly wings to make imprints. She also shows us the underside of the leaves. That shows us that she could study them from all sides and not in the pressed form as other flower still life painters. And then she paints all those little insects in there and it’s really a joy to find those. you can find a tiny tiny ant in one of the leaves, we’ve got those wonderful caterpillars and one of them is hanging on a single thread. All those little details, I think she enlivens the bouquet and makes it breathing. She earned a lot of money, she sometimes got 750 to 1,200 guilders for one painting for example. Rembrandt never really got more than 500 guilders for a painting. She became the first female member of an artist’s society in The Hague. In 1708 she became a court painter in Dusseldorf. From that time, she was so successful that she didn’t have to paint more than a few paintings a year. It was helpful for Rachel to be married to a painter ‘cause he would have been more understanding. There’s a really nice story about her husband, Juriaen Pool, when he painted a portrait of himself, Rachel, and their son. In showing her at her easel and giving all the emphasis to her painting, he himself is standing in the background just pointing to Rachel. For me that clearly shows that he understood and accepted that she was the greater talent really. We also know that she must have been really passionate about painting and she didn’t do it in order to earn money because in 1722 the family won the lottery, which today is the equivalent of winning the million jackpot. She might have had an advantage in that the Netherlands might have been a bit more progressive in terms of women’s rights. We have the accounts of foreign visitors who seem to have been amazed by the domineering behavior of some Dutch women that were allowed to take over business whenever their husbands were away. They seem to have worn the trousers in the household, as we say. It is important to me to share Rachel’s whole story, because I think not many visitors know about her. And although she is a part of the history and development of still lifes, someone who was so famous and successful in her own time, she’s been largely forgotten in art history. I think that Rachel Ruysch is a very inspiring person and I’m just in awe of her managing her successful career at the same time as being a mum to 10 children that’s something, that I find fascinating.

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