Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch,

Flowers on a Tree Trunk (Rachel Ruysch, ca. first half of 18th century)

Every once in a while, things go right for artists: Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) lived a long prosperous life and found international success as a still life painter in an era when there were few women in the arts.  Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a famous professor of anatomy and botany who was renowned for his highly informative yet artistic anatomy displays (somewhat in the manner of famous contemporary body displays by the anatomist Gunther von Hagens).  Professor Ruysch built strange and delicate landscapes out of preserved human organs and dissected bodies—particularly those of infants. He was renowned for his skill with various preservative regents and his secret liquor balsamicum was one of the wonders of the day—as were the novel human specimens he preserved within this embalming fluid. Rachel was expected to help by creating lace for the pieces and then arranging the bodies, limbs, appendages, and organs in an artistic fashion along with seashells and flowers (you’ll have to look that stuff up on your own, because it is the stuff of nightmares).

Because she worked closely with her father, interacted with famous artists of Holland’s golden age, and drew and organized the objects in her family’s famous curiosity cabinet, Rachel was well positioned to launch her own art career.  She usually painted in the “dark background” still life style of de Heem and Willem Kalf, however many of her works demonstrated her background in the natural sciences.  For example in “Flowers on a Tree Trunk” she boldly moves her composition from the parlor to the forest.  A highly artificial flower bouquet of cabbage-roses, lilies, and irises dominates the composition—however, since this flower arrangement is located on the ground floor of a forest, the meaning is extremely different from more conventional vase paintings.  Surrounded by wild creatures the bouquet invites the viewer to contrast the artificial beauty of flower arranging (or indeed of cultivated flowers themselves) with the chaotic beauty of a wild ecosystem of snakes, lizards, snails and butterflies.

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)

Portrait of Rachel Ruysch (Godfried Schalcken, ca. 1706)