Still life of a bouquet of pink and white roses, poppy anemones, primroses, forget-me-nots, jonquils, daffodils, snowballs, honeysuckle and a tulip in a glass vase, with a bird's nest
Oil on canvas: 17.2(h) x 15.2(w) in / 43.8(h) x 38.7(w) cm
Signed and dated upper left: Rachel Ruysch / 1738
The Hague 1664 – 1750 Amsterdam
Ref: BZ 274
Still life of a bouquet of pink and white roses, poppy anemones, primroses, forget-me-nots, jonquils, daffodils, snowballs, honeysuckle and a tulip in a glass vase, with a bird’s nest
Signed and dated upper left: Rachel Ruysch / 1738
Oil on canvas: 17 ¼ x 15 ¼ in / 43.8 x 38.7 cm
Frame size: 25 x 23 in / 63.5 x 58.4 cm
In a black and brown polished Dutch seventeenth century style knull frame
M et Mme Léon Cotnareanu, 24 avenue Raphaël, Paris (their address partially legible on a label on the reverse);
private collection, Deauville, France;
Guy Le Houelleur, Hôtel des Ventes, Deauville, 31st January 1999, lot 1;
Richard Green, London, 1999;
from whom acquired on 22nd March 1999 by Mr and Mrs Barge-Dreesmann, Brasschaat;
The painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue and monograph of Rachel Ruysch by Dr Marianne Berardi, currently in preparation
Over the course of her long and distinguished career as one of Holland’s preeminent flower painters of the Dutch Golden Age, Rachel Ruysch excelled in painting several types of still lifes, ranging from quite simple sprays of flowers without any sort of container, to medium-sized bouquets in a vase, to truly magnificent large floral extravaganzas crawling with insect life. The latter often contained one or more exotic fruits, legumes and cacti as well. Ruysch’s most ambitious flower paintings date roughly from 1700 to 1720. During these years she produced commissioned paintings for a host of wealthy Dutch businessmen, such as the Leiden textile merchant Allard de la Court van der Voort. She also counted among her patrons foreign nobles and aristocrats such as the Prince of Anhalt-Koethen (an early patron of Johann Sebastian Bach), Tzar Peter the Great, the Elector Palatine of Dusseldorf and the Florentine Grand Duke, Cosimo III de Medici. The paintings such discerning collectors desired from Ruysch were the finest she produced – of tremendous compositional complexity and meticulous finish, achieved through layers of delicate glazing, keen observation, and an astonishing assurance of touch. These were understandably canvases that demanded a full year, if not two or more, to complete. Today, most of these works are in museum collections.
This densely arranged bouquet of flowers in a dark vase with a bird’s nest beside it is one of the most ambitious late works by Rachel Ruysch to have emerged on the market in the last twenty years. She painted it in 1738, when she was seventy-four years old, and still fully in command of the artistic powers which led poets and biographers to celebrate her achievements with appellations such as “art goddess, “art heroine,” and “Amsterdam Pallas.” This bouquet represents an important benchmark within Ruysch’s oeuvre because it marks the beginning of the painter’s late-career resurgence after roughly a decade of slowed production (circa 1725-1735). The reasons for this period of decline in her output remain speculative, though one factor was likely the enormous financial windfall she had in 1723. That year, the artist, her husband (portraitist Juriaen Pool II) and her son Georgio won the jackpot in the Holland lottery amounting to 60,000 guilders—a considerable fortune that would have removed the necessity of painting for a living.
As it turns out, however, painting the world of plants was much more than a profession for Rachel Ruysch. It was an avocation which started when she was quite young, and judging from both extant works and documentary evidence, her output increased again quite noticeably during the course of the 1730s and continued for the remainder of her life. In fact, from 1738 to 1748 (the latter being the year of her last known work), Ruysch produced at least one painting every year, excepting 1744, despite her advancing age. In both 1746 and 1747, for example, she is known to have painted two pairs of companion flowerpieces with fruit (one pair in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, and the other in the Kurpfälzischen Museum der Stadt Heidelberg).[i] Most she signed and inscribed with both the date and her age as if to stress, with unabashed pride, that she was still going strong into the sixth decade of her career.
Beginning in the early 1720s, Ruysch made tentative steps towards lightening up the backgrounds of her bouquets, as well as her flowers themselves, in an effort to remain au courant and follow the prevailing international artistic trend towards a brighter, blonder palette associated with the Rococo. Flower painter Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), her younger contemporary, set the model for this brighter style in Dutch flower painting which did away with the rich dark backgrounds Ruysch embraced for most of her career. That inky backdrop was a convention most flower painters of the 17th-century embraced since its contrast with the illuminated bouquet enabled the flowers, leaves, and stems to stand in high relief, thereby creating an almost magical degree of three-dimensionality and verisimilitude.
When Ruysch created the present work, her shift to the brighter style became far more noticeable than anything she created earlier, making it a critical transitional painting. She achieved the more “modern” look through a few different strategies, which nonetheless allowed her to maintain the signature three-dimensionality which was her artistic trademark and therefore something she would have been loath to compromise. In this painting, the artist substituted the dark background with one having a lighter, greenish cast to it. Next, she massed a cluster of large pastel pink and creamy white flowers deliberately in the large central zone of the bouquet. These roses, poppy anemones - a very 18th-century flower - and primroses occupy so much of the picture surface that they immediately impart a brighter tonal effect overall. Quite importantly, Ruysch also made her arrangement far more compact than anything she painted earlier, such that all the leaves and flowers fit tightly next to, between, and among one another, almost in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle. Arranged in this way rather than more loosely as she had in the past, the blossoms are lit more evenly with less turning into and away from the light source as they did in the earlier bouquets which had yielded a darker effect overall. Described another way, Ruysch cut down on the intensely contrasting chiaroscuro to differentiate the plants from one another in space. Instead, she relied more heavily upon chromatic contrasts to describe the flowers’ relationships to one another: pink sits against white, white against blue, blue against burgundy, green against orange. For the most part, the judicious colour contrasts are enough to carry off the illusion, relying on tiny spots of darkness in the negative spaces only when necessary, such as between the two central roses she needed to push forward spatially to create roundness in the front of the bouquet.
Although Ruysch does not fully adopt the Rococo’s palette shift to a cooler blue in this painting, she is moving in that direction by including a larger-than-usual zone of blue flowers on the left side of the arrangement. Sprays of forget-me-nots as well as a light blue double hyacinth are featured. The prevalence of blue in the Rococo palette can be attributed in large part to the availability of a new blue pigment, Prussian blue, which as its name suggests was discovered in Germany early in the 18th century. Interestingly, Rachel Ruysch has a special connection to the pigment because she seems to have been the first Dutch artist to use it. Conservation tests reveal that she used it in her 1716 bouquet in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Unlike its prohibitively costly predecessor ultramarine blue, made from pulverized semi-precious lapis lazuli, Prussian blue is synthetic, easier to obtain as a result, and also a colour that has tremendous staining power. A little dab can tint a great deal of white blue. Ruysch’s source for the pigment was almost certainly her sister Anna and brother-in-law Isaac Hellenbroeck, who were dealers in artists’ pigments in Amsterdam.
Despite these newer features, this work possesses the hallmarks of Rachel Ruysch’s signature bouquets. One is a preference for strong red and red-orange accents at regular intervals throughout the composition. Another is the bouquet’s construction around a cluster of the densest flowers in the heart of the design (the roses and poppy anemones). From this tight centre, Ruysch spins graceful arcs to upper right (in the form of a dominant tulip) and towards the lower left (along a sprig of honeysuckle). This type of arrangement introduces both a sense of movement and of asymmetrical interest to a design that its essentially round. Ruysch had begun placing birds’ nests containing eggs at the foot of her flower arrangements around 1730 – probably in response to a vogue that was popularised by Jan van Huysum. Before 1730, Ruysch often included both birds and their egg-filled nests in her paintings – although only in her fruit pieces, which she staged in outdoor grotto settings. A close examination of the present bouquet reveals the inclusion of water droplets and several insects including a beetle on the tulip stem, a bumblebee on a silhouetted leaf on the right, and both a large bluebottle fly and sand wasp on the polished pink marble slab in the foreground.
There are three works Rachel Ruysch produced from the period circa 1739-1743 with which this painting can be most closely compared. A bouquet dated 1739 with an equally prominent striped tulip, with a bird’s nest beside the vase, was with Richard Green in 1991 (private collection).[ii] On this painting of 1739, Ruysch signed her name in full, in red paint as she has in the present work, and indicated both her age (76) and the year (1739). Ruysch gave full rein to the cool blueish palette in this work, dispersing more blue flowers throughout the bouquet rather than zoning them, and also using tints of Prussian blue judiciously in some of the whites as well. A superbly preserved bouquet on panel dated 1740 and inscribed with the artist’s age of 77 (private collection, UK), also features the cool palette, light background, the oversized flame tulip, and the densely constructed arrangement featuring numerous blue flowers including a dusty miller (although not the bird’s nest).[iii] The third painting with strong compositional similarities and floral choices to the present picture is a bouquet of 1743, which was formerly in the collection of Mrs Hamilton-Browne (UK) in 1956 (present owner unknown).[iv]
Close inspection of this carefully painted bouquet reveals a number of pentimenti, or changes to the composition, made by the artist during the course of its production. Over the years as the paint naturally ages and becomes somewhat more transparent, such adjustments made by the artist reveal themselves in a delicate ghostly manner. Far from being in any way disfiguring, the pentimenti are wonderful and important glimpses into the working process of an artist for whom very few surviving drawings are known. In this painting, for example, one can discern how Ruysch painted over a rather large flower on the far-right side of the bouquet just above where a bumblebee perches on the edge of a leaf. The shadowy circular area appears to be compositional adjustment, overpainted in order to lighten up a spot that would otherwise have been too dense to balance the more delicate left side of the bouquet where the forget-me-nots are placed. Smaller buds terminating on a stem take the place of the overpainted flower (probably a peony), giving an airier effect. Immediately above that zone is the end of a poppy leaf with an undulating margin where one can discern that the artist shortened its length. Perhaps she didn’t want it to have such a long protruding point. Additionally, the very slight halo appearing around the leaf suggests Ruysch very carefully refined its gorgeous lacy margins - particularly since the leaf reads prominently as a silhouetted shape against the lighter background niche. She clearly wanted to get that piece of draughtsmanship absolutely perfect.
Interestingly, the present work, which emerged from private collections in the 1990s, can be traced to collections in France, where the Rococo trend had first originated. Based on the partial address of the label preserved on the back of the work, the painting once hung in the Parisian address of Yvonne and Léon Cotnareanu. Cotnareanu was the Romanian-born second husband of Yvonne Coty, whose first husband, François Coty, founded Coty Cosmetics. Following his marriage to Yvonne, Cotnareanu served as director of Coty for a period. Among his many interests, Cotnareanu was an enthusiastic collector of rare books, manuscripts and paintings.[v] The present work did not appear in the Cotnareanu sale on 14th December 1960 at the Musée Galliéra, Paris, suggesting it may have remained in the family. A tantalizing piece of the provenance for the painting, hinted at through the black wax seal on the reverse of the stretcher bearing the initials GS, has yet to be solved.
Dr Marianne Berardi
The Hague 1664 – 1750 Amsterdam
Rachel Ruysch was the most successful Dutch woman artist of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Like her rival Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), she regularly sold her sumptuous flowerpieces for prices exceeding 1,000 florins - a sum representing almost three times the annual wage of a contemporary tradesman.
Ruysch was born in The Hague in 1664. Her parents Maria Post (1643-1720) and Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) had close ties with artistic and scientific communities, which afforded Ruysch many intellectual and economic advantages as a flower painter. Maria Post was the daughter of the Stadhouder’s architect Pieter Post, who designed the Huis ten Bosch, the royal residence in The Hague. Dr Frederik Ruysch was a distinguished anatomist and botanist who became the youngest president of Amsterdam’s Surgeons’ Guild in 1666 and helped to build up the Amsterdam botanical garden into one of the most richly-stocked gardens of its type in the world. He also assembled an extensive cabinet of scientific curiosities, which Rachel assisted him in preparing. The collection eventually became a celebrated tourist attraction and the first public natural history museum in Europe. He sold it to Peter the Great and part of it survives in St Petersburg.
Ruysch first studied with the Delft-born still-life specialist Willem van Aelst from 1679 until his death circa 1683. After working in van Aelst’s cool and elegant, but rather hard manner for roughly a decade, she began to develop a style of her own. Her bouquets possess a stronger sense of atmosphere, a greater variety of plant and insect types, and a warmer colour scheme. Ruysch married a local portraitist, Jurian Pool the Younger (1666-1745), with whom she had ten children. The couple entered the painter’s guild in The Hague in 1701. In 1708 Ruysch's flowerpieces attracted the attention of Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine of Dusseldorf, who invited her to become one of his court painters. She worked for him from 1708 until his death in 1716, and under his generous patronage her art reached the pinnacle of its expression. Ruysch lived until the age of eighty-six and died in Amsterdam in 1750.
The work of Rachel Ruysch is represented in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; The Mauritshuis, The Hague; the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels; the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig; the National Gallery, London; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena and the San Diego Museum of Art.
[i] See MH Grant, Rachel Ruysch 1664–1750, Leigh-on-Sea 1956: Lille paintings, p.43, nos.197 and 198; Heidelberg paintings, p.43, nos.201 and 202.
[ii] Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in / 51 x 41 cm, signed and dated 1739 and inscribed with the painter’s age ‘Aet. 76’; Grant, op. cit., p.38, no.143, reproduced plate 37. Exhibited Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Mauritshuis in Bloom. Bouquets from the Golden Age, 1992, no.22.
[iii] This work is signed in full, dated 1740, and inscribed AET 77 at upper left. Oil on panel, it measures approximately 20 x 16 in / 51 x 41 cm and may be identical with the work listed as the work dated 1740 in the death inventory of the artist’s husband Juriaen Pool, valued at 1,000 guilders.
[iv]Grant, op. cit., p.38, no.145, reproduced plate 38 (dated 1743, not 1745 as listed in Grant).
[v]Tiepolo’s Time unveiling Truth of circa 1758 in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (inv. no. 61.1200), for example, was a work formerly in the Cotnareanu collection sold in the collector’s 1960 sale, lot 14.