Rachel Ruysch was perfectly situated for a predisposition for flowers. Her father was a renowned scientist and botanist, whose samples Ruysch used as drawing practice. She grew up in Amsterdam shortly after the end of tulip mania. A growing merchant class was beginning to appreciate the flower not for herbal or medicinal purposes, but purely for its beauty and fragrance. So it’s no surprise that flowers ended up a lifelong subject for the painter.
Ruysch’s contemporaries tended to paint tightly focused floral still-lifes, with a clear outline of the entire bouquet and vessel. Ruysch, however, developed a style of her own: lavish and full, her bouquets would spread out spontaneously, filling the frame, woven through with vines, insects, and shells. What seemed so wild and natural was in fact a careful combination of multiple studies.
The blossoms featured in Flowers in a Glass Bowl are of many different varieties from all over the globe, and they do not bloom at the same time of year. It is highly likely that Ruysch would have had to study the flowers individually, creating sketches to work from, so when she was ready to paint she could combine all sorts of unlikely bedfellows into her lush arrangements. Inspired in part by her father’s work, as well as her many years of practice, Ruysch’s flowers are painted in such close detail they could almost be scientific renderings. This careful attention is part of what gained Ruysch international renown in her time.
As modern-day viewers, we may look at Ruysch’s floral work as simply beautiful bouquets. They’re beautiful indeed, but to gain further insight it is important to delve into how her works were viewed by her peers. In her time, certain flowers would have been easily recognized as references to Christianity. The blue morning glories at the bottom left and right of this arrangement symbolized the Resurrection. Morning glories open at dawn — Jesus coming back from the dead at sunrise.
While those flowers are freshly opened, it’s also important to note that other items in the bouquet are less than fresh, and that’s on purpose. Leaves starting to spot, a background tulip slowly turning brown: these all represent death. Death is a part of life, Ruysch seems to say with this inclusion. Beauty isn’t everlasting. And yet, her contemporary viewers would have found hope in the striking blues of the morning glory, in resurrection and new life. These deeper layers of meaning allow us to see the value beyond the work’s ornamental beauty.
Ruysch’s paintings have an exhilarating sense of spontaneity about them, but this edition (like her other work) is actually a carefully considered composition, which makes that wild vibe all the more impressive. The dizzying variety of blossoms featured in Flowers in a Glass Bowl are native to different areas all around the globe, and bloom at different times of the year. Ipso facto, it’s highly likely they never met in real life. Ruysch probably studied the flowers in this piece — and many of her other still lifes — individually, referring to her sketches when she began painting so she could combine all sorts of unlikely bedfellows into one lush arrangement. And though the appearance of a few slumped, fading flowers smacks of a familiarly realistic mortality, these were examined elements too. Flowers in a Glass Bowlis a fantasy flower arrangement with an enigmatically earthy appeal ... Read more on the blog!
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