One of the great talents of the Dutch Golden Age, Rachel Ruysch developed her own take on the delicate art of flower painting. Over six decades, Rachel produced rich and dramatic still-lives. Her unique skill of painting natural subjects with extreme accuracy gave her success during her lifetime. Rachel’s reputation as the best flower painter in Holland was never surpassed.
Rachel Ruysch was born on the 3rd of June 1664 in The Hague. Rachel’s father, Frederick Ruysch was a science professor working in the disciplines of anatomy and botany. Frederick was an amateur painter and encouraged Rachel to develop her drawing and painting skills at a young age. The Ruysch house was filled with Frederick's vast specimen collection. Rachel used her father’s plant, flower and insect samples as subjects to teach herself how to draw and paint.
By the time she reached her teenage years, Rachel was able to paint small details with a fine degree of accuracy. Around the age of fifteen, Rachel began a formal apprenticeship with painter Willem van Aelst. It was unusual for young women to apprentice as painters at that time. But Rachel had talent and determination and worked with van Aelst until his death in 1683.
Rachel worked in the style made famous by Otto Marseus van Schriek. She depicted forest flora and fauna in extreme detail on a dark and somber background. In her early works, Rachel, like van Schriek, depicted the life of a forest floor, including small reptiles, fungi, and insects in her work. Later, Rachels paintings focussed on flowers and took on a playfulness and vibrancy that endeared her work to the Rococo movement.
Under van Aelst’s tutelage, Rachel learned to create compositions that looked natural and realistic. Rachel’s painstaking attention to minute detail set her apart from others working in the Dutch Flower painting tradition. Around the age of eighteen, Rachel began work as an independent professional artist, producing and selling her own works.
Rachel did not work in a vacuum but was part of a growing community of flower painters working in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Painters Jan and Maria Moninck, Johanna Helena Herolt-Graff and Alida Withoos were all around Rachel’s age and painted in a similar style. Hortus owner Agnes Block commissioned work from these young artists but it was Rachel’s work that demanded the highest price tag.
In 1693, Rachel married Juriaen Pool, a portrait painter working in Amsterdam. Once married, the couple moved to The Hague where they were both welcomed into the Guild of St Luke. While working as artists, Rachel and Juriaen had 10 children. In 1699 Rachel won membership to the Confrerie Pictura in the Hague. Rachel was the first female artists admitted to this organization.
Two years later, Rachel and Juriaen were honored with membership to the Hague Painter’s Guild. Rachel’s work was highly valued by both the art establishment and collectors. In the 17th century, the Dutch were obsessed with the beauty of nature and adored artwork that could capture it. As a result, Rachel enjoyed fame and financial success during her lifetime. Rachel's paintings sold for huge prices of up to 1200 guilders. To give that sum perspective, Rembrandt rarely earned more than 500 guilders for his paintings.
In 1708, Rachel was invited to Dusseldorf to work as court painter int he court of Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine of Bavaria. Rachel must have traveled to Bavaria to meet with Wilhelm. Yet given that Rachel’s was the mother to a growing brood of children in Holland, she likely worked from her home studio traveled to Dusseldorf to present her work. Rachel worked for Wilhelm for eight lucrative years until the Prince died in 1716.
Before his death, Johann Wilhelm sent one of Rachel’s paintings to Cosimo III, the grand duke of Tuscany. The painting, Still-life with Fruit, Flowers, and Insects (1711), has been on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1753.
Rachel continued to paint her large-scale fruit and flower works for an impressive roster of international clientele. Artistically active throughout her long life, Rachel inscribed a late canvas with her age in 1747, 83. As Rachel’s first signed canvas dates to around age 15, Rachel’s active artistic period lasted 68 years.
Rachel died in 1749, aged 86 leaving behind more than 250 paintings. Rachel may have completed many more paintings than this but they have either not survived to have not been properly documented. In 1999, a painting confirmed to be the work of Rachel Ruysch was found in an abandoned farmhouse. The painting sold for 2.9 million French francs.