65 x 54 cm
Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase depicts sixteen plant and insect species with restrained elegance.
The lozenge shape of the bouquet creates an overall sense of balance (see diagram above). An imaginary horizontal and vertical line structures the composition. The vertical line runs from the white poppy anemone at the top to the reddish-orange Danube tulip at the bottom. The bouquet has a low center of gravity, with the horizontal line running from the bent stalk of striped canary grass with its grey-gold seedhead at center left to the large morning glory at center right.
Adding a sense of dynamism is the S-curve that runs from the opium poppy bud at upper right; along the white-highlighted stalk of canary grass in front of the grayling butterfly; across the bright red peacock anemone and provins rose at center; to the downward curving stem of the Danube tulip. (Willem van Aelst, who taught the Ruysch sisters, was the first to use S-curves to enliven his floral still lifes, a technique Rachel later exploited to great effect.)
Like most 17th-century Dutch still lifes, light enters the composition from upper left. The majority of the flowers turn in this direction, as if drawn to the light, which contributes to the naturalism of the image and creates a visual counterbalance for the marble ledge.
Individual blossoms, grasses, and insects interject the scene with movement and vitality. Stems, leaves, and petals unfold, coil, and whither. A swallowtail butterfly alights momentarily on a bright blue cornflower. A teensy ladybug crawls along a dewdrop-covered rose leaf. A female grayling butterfly, seen from the underside, soars between two pink and white blunt tulips. On the marble ledge, a little garden snail glides toward the translucent glass vase—perhaps on a mission to devour the roses, which already show signs of insect damage.
Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase looks like a real-life bouquet when in fact it is a clever fiction. It depicts flowers that bloom in different seasons and other impossibilities, such as the morning glories, which only bloom on the vine. Like her contemporaries, Ruysch consulted drawings and paintings of individual plants and insects to create her paintings.
The illusion of three-dimensional space comes from her judicious use of unifying shadows and highlights and dramatic lighting effects. Chiaroscuro makes certain elements, such as the tulips and rose, appear closer to the viewer and others recede, suggesting many layers of depth within the relatively shallow space of the marble ledge.
Ruysch portrays twelve plants, three insects, and a snail with such precision that they can be identified by genus and species. Her contemporaries undoubtedly appreciated this accuracy, as they would have known the scientific and monetary worth of these plants and creatures—which was significant—due to their familiarity with illustrated herbals, florilegium, and entomological studies like the one pictured above, by Maria Sibylla Merian (another of Rachel Ruysch’s teachers).
Additionally, some viewers would have associated the withered tulips and insect-damaged leaves with the idea of vanitas: the inevitability of death and the necessity of living a pious life. Still others would have understood this highly accurate rendering of plants and insects as a testament to the magnificence and variety of God’s creation. Indeed, it was the multitude of meanings that floral still life paintings could convey that made them such coveted works of art.
Author: Maureen Warren, curator of European and American Art, 2017.
Marianne Berardi, “Science into Art: Rachel Ruysch's Early Development as a Still-Life Painter,” PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1998.
Colonel M. H. Grant, Rachel Ruysch 1664-1750 [F. Lewis Publishers: Leigh-on-Sea) 1956.
Luuc Kooijmans, Ruysch, Anna, in: Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. URL: http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/annaruysch [13/01/2014]
F.G. Meijer and E. Buysen, Anna Ruysch’s Rabbit’s Teeth and Fringes, The Hoogsteder Journal nr. 4, 1998, p. 17-23
Sam Segal, Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries, [The Hague: SDU Publishers] 1990.