Guest post by Ariane van Suchtelen, Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands
In 2022 the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague celebrates its 200th anniversary with In Full Bloom, a festive exhibition about Dutch and Flemish flower still lifes of the seventeenth century.
Flowers did not become an independent subject in painting till around 1600; the new genre flourished in the Low Countries until around 1725. Colourful bouquets, full of exotic species, were executed to perfection: the more lifelike and precise the rendering of each individual flower, the more attractive the painting. Women featured relatively prominently among practitioners of the flower still life, and they also played a role in the field of botany. This exhibition shines a spotlight on female practitioners of the flower genre, not in isolation but in the company of their male colleagues.
Talent and perseverance
High-quality work by female painters of the seventeenth century is very scarce. To illustrate this scarcity, the Mauritshuis has only four paintings by women artists in its collection of around 850 old master paintings. Two of those are flower still lifes: a painting by Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–1693) and a work by Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) (Figs. 1 and 2). One may ask why there were so few female artists at the time, but the question could also be turned around: how was it possible that someone like Rachel Ruysch achieved such success? What enabled Maria van Oosterwijck to transcend the established order and pursue a professional career as a painter?
Although the artistic climate in the Netherlands was relatively favourable for women in the seventeenth century, the number of social, economic and personal obstacles women had to overcome to pursue their artistic talents was endless. Just think of the years of expensive training needed to become a painter, for most parents a pointless investment for a daughter without career prospects. Therefore it comes as no surprise that among the few women that did manage to achieve a professional artistic career, quite a number came from families of painters: they were trained at home so that they could contribute to the family business. Such artists as Alida Withoos, Clara Peeters, Michaelina Wautier and Maria Sibylla Merian—all represented with works in the exhibition (Figs. 3, 4, 5 and 9, respectively)—came from families of artists.
Another category were the daughters of well-to-do parents, who were trained at home not only to read and write, but also to be proficient in all kinds of artistic endeavours, like embroidery, paper-cutting, glass-engraving and (watercolour) painting. Once in a while a woman who was lucky enough to come from such a background, had so much talent and perseverance that she managed to cross the line and become a professional artist.
A “suitable” subject for women
Remarkably, of the women that managed to break through as artists, quite a number specialised in flower painting, a subject considered at the time as very suitable for women with artistic aspirations. Willem Goeree, a bookseller from Middelburg, argued in 1670 in his verlichterie-kunde (The Art of Illumination), a didactic handbook on watercolour painting, that flowers (fruits and birds as well) were highly suitable for “young daughters, and ladies of standing, who have many idle hours to fill.” According to Gerard de Lairesse, who was the first to write an extensive essay about flower still lifes in his Groot Schilderboek (Great Book of Painting, 1707), there was no subject “as feminine, so suitable for a woman” as the flower still life. After all, plants and flowers could be found in the woman’s immediate surroundings, not far from home—relatively easy and safe subject matter. It was generally agreed that the prestigious genre of history painting was less suitable for women, who it was thought lacked the knowledge and strength of imagination needed to paint high-ranking biblical or mythological scenes. Moreover, for a history painter, knowledge of the human anatomy was indispensable, but it was considered inappropriate for women to study human anatomy by drawing from a nude model.
Extraordinary works by women
For this exhibition, we chose not to get caught up too deeply in arguments about the presumed “suitability” for women of flower painting. Clearly, times have changed, as have notions about women. Given the broadly shared desire to elucidate the part played by women in (cultural) history and art history, we took the opportunity of this “female” subject to select as many extraordinary works by women artists as possible. Here’s a small preview of some of the exhibited works.
Her husband’s name
Clara Peeters (c.1587–after 1636) of the Southern Netherlands is the first known female still-life painter. Active shortly after 1600, she is one of the pioneers of the new genre. Her works, filled with costly objects, evoke an atmosphere of abundance. Flowers in full bloom are completely at home in this world of luxury. The blooms in the beautiful painting of the Kröller-Müller Museum are not neatly arranged in a vase (Fig. 4).
Roses, tulips, narcissi, snake’s-head fritillaries, anemones, violets and a lily-of-the-valley lie in disarray in a wicker basket and an elegant silver drinking bowl, looking as though they have just been picked. This work was acquired by the founder of the museum in Otterlo, Helene Kröller-Müller, as a painting by the German artist Peter Binoit—only in the last few decades to be recognised by several experts as a painting by Peeters. This was due in part to the wicker basket and tazza, which can be found in other signed works by her. During the recent restoration by conservator Eva van Zuien in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Peeters’ characteristic signature in capital letters was discovered at lower left, following the removal of a local overpainting. Of course, this was a very welcome confirmation of the attribution to the artist.
Until recently no trace of Clara Peeters could be found in the archives. The only fact from her life that could be ascertained was that she must have worked in Antwerp, given the marks of Antwerp panel-makers on the backs of a number of her works. A few years ago, archival researcher Jean Bastiaensen convincingly argued that Peeters was probably not the painter’s own name, but her married name. He suggested that she was in fact Clara Lamberts, born around 1587 in Mechelen in a family of painters, who later moved to Antwerp. By marrying master-painter Hendrick Peeters (no work by him appears to have survived), she would have been able to work without joining the guild herself. There are numerous reasons why a woman artist can disappear from view over time—using her husband’s name could have been one of them.
The paintings by Michaelina Wautier (c.1604–1689), born in Mons (Hainau), were often attributed to male painters after her death, including her brother Charles Wautier. Misattributions can be another reason why an artist can sink into oblivion. In the case of Michaelina Wautier this is even more remarkable because of the large number of full signatures on her works, evidence that in recent years offered a solid basis for the reconstruction of her wide-ranging oeuvre. Wautier had a successful career as a painter in Brussels. She carried out prestigious commissions, including—exceptional for a woman—altarpieces for churches and monumental mythological scenes. If Wautier had not signed two flower still lifes in 1652, they would probably not have been so readily attributed to her, since they differ so much from her other work.
The exhibition includes a marvellous festoon of flowers hanging between two animal skulls (Fig. 5). It testifies to Wautier’s great inventiveness that she introduced something completely new to the art of flower painting by incorporating this motif, derived from Roman sepulchral art. The skulls, combined with the blooming flowers, can be understood as a reference to the transience of life—the spring flowers in this very lifelike festoon are already starting to wither.
Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–1693) was the most successful female flower painter of the Northern Netherlands before Rachel Ruysch. She did not come from a family of painters, but from a Delft family of clergymen, with parents apparently enlightened enough to allow their daughter to be trained as a painter. When a woman excelled as an artist, that was considered to be particularly special, merely because she was a woman. Laudatory poems were written about the remarkable accomplishments of these women, resounding with amazement and admiration. An artwork of high quality produced by a woman was particularly noteworthy—and as such could also command a high price. Their works were sought after by high-ranking collectors. Already in her lifetime, Van Oosterwijck’s paintings could be found in a choice range of royal collections—the Austrian emperor Leopold I, the French King Louis XIV, Cosimo de’Medici in Florence, the Dutch-English King-Stadholder William III and the Polish King Jan Sobieski acquired works by her hand.
In the painting from the Mauritshuis’s own collection (Fig. 1), Van Oosterwijck arranged her bouquet in an ivory cup decorated with naked boys picking grapes and playing with a goat. On the lid next to the vase on the table is a statuette of a naked woman, probably Venus, the goddess of love (it can be traced to the “Crouching Venus,” a famous statue of antiquity). She looks up at the bouquet, surmounted by a sunflower, symbol of the true believer, who follows God like the sunflower follows the sun. Possibly, the painter intended to mark the contrast between earthly love, represented by the statuette and the Bacchic scene, and the Christian love of the true believer, as symbolised by the sunflower. Such religious references to the transience of life are not uncommon in the work of Van Oosterwijck, who according to her biographer Arnold Houbraken was “chaste and uncommonly devout.” Of course, the notion that human life is short comes naturally with flower still lifes, given the quick withering of the blooms.
An extraordinary story is how Van Oosterwijck trained her maidservant Geertje Wyntges (also known by her patronymic, Geertje Pieters, 1636–1712) to become a painter like herself. Constantijn Huygens wrote admiring poems about both women, whom he knew personally. Geertje abandoned her “dishcloth and broom” and learned “to Oosterwijck” (turning the painter’s name into a verb), Huygens wrote. We know of a few flower paintings by Geertje Wyntges, which clearly show her following in her mistress’s footsteps. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge owns a flower still life of which the signature has traditionally been read as Geert Pieters (instead of the female form of the name: Geertje or Geertie) (Fig. 6). In this painting, the flowers are arranged in a precious vase of Cologne earthenware decorated with scenes of the Nativity—the same vase appears in one of Van Oosterwijck’s paintings. Geertje Wyntges experienced a truly remarkable promotion from maidservant to co-worker in a painter’s studio.
“Natural artistic fervour”
Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) was one of the most successful women in Dutch art history, hailed in her own time as a true “art heroine.” Her clients paid high prices for her brilliant flower still lifes, which she produced over a long career that continued to the mid-eighteenth century, when she was well past the age of eighty. It is estimated that some 150 of her paintings have been preserved, which is considerably more than the surviving oeuvre of any other female painter from the seventeenth or eighteenth century.
As the daughter of the famous professor of anatomy Frederik Ruysch, who from 1685 was also professor of botany at the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus, Rachel Ruysch grew up in an enlightened mileu, where her talent found fertile ground in which to flourish. According to her biographer Johan van Gool, Ruysch’s father recognised Rachel’s “natural artistic fervour” and understood that “something great was in store for his daughter.” He apprenticed her to the best flower painter in Amsterdam, Willem van Aelst, whom she would soon rival. A beautiful example of Ruysch’s work is the flower still life of 1700 in the Mauritshuis collection (see Fig. 2 above), the delicate detailing of which is characteristic of the masterly quality of her art. The bouquet in this work is past its prime—a number of flowers are wilting and fading. In the middle a withered bloom has been removed; the cut-off stem is still visible. Ruysch portrayed the inevitable decay in a way that was inconceivable in the early seventeenth century.
At the beginning of her career, Ruysch had painted a number of so-called “woodland scenes” (“bosgrondjes”), which hark back to influential pictures of shadowy woods, close to the ground, by Otto Marseus van Schrieck. In Full Bloom includes her painting from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, in which blooming flowers are arranged against a bare tree stump; moss and mushrooms grow on the ground (Fig. 7). The scene is filled with crawly animals, like the stag beetle that climbs a rock, moving upwards, rather menacing, towards the beautiful flowers.
Exhibited next to this work is a small painting of another woodland scene, but this one is painted by Rachel’s younger sister Anna Ruysch (1666–1754) (Fig. 8). It is an enchanting scene with brightly lit blooms in a shadowy world, enlivened with butterflies, a lizard and a snail. Two years younger than Rachel, Anna Ruysch also became a painter of flower still lifes, and the two sisters probably collaborated for a short time. They painted these woodland scenes while still in their parents’ house, possibly working side by side. Compared to her sister, the scope of Anna’s oeuvre is limited, and a good painting by her hand is not easy to find. After her marriage at the age of twenty-one, unlike her sister, she appears to have stopped painting.
Between art and science
There are not only paintings to be enjoyed in the exhibition, but prints, drawings, botanical albums and books as well, again with a special focus on the contribution of women. Unsurpassable in many ways was Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), born to a German-Dutch family of artists and publishers.
She was not only a world-class (botanical) artist but also a meticulous researcher of natural history. She studied the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies and made drawings of the process. Merian worked throughout her life on her European Caterpillar Book, which was published in a number of volumes. In 1699–1701 she and her younger daughter travelled to Suriname to study the indigenous insects of the country, a Dutch colony at the time. This resulted in her monumental book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium of 1705, which contains sixty prints of the “transformation of Surinamese insects” (Fig. 9). The text describes the various stages of the metamorphosis of the insects and butterflies she examined, as well as what they feed upon. The first print shows the metamorphosis of the cockroach next to a pineapple, “the foremost of all edible fruits.” The life and work of Merian has always appealed to the imagination.
A Network of Botanical Collectors
To conclude this brief summary, the exhibition features works by female botanical artists, such as Alida Withoos (1661–1730) and Maria Moninckx (c.1676–1757). Both women contributed to the extraordinary “Moninckx Atlas” of the Hortus in Amsterdam. Three volumes of the Atlas with botanical drawings are on display, opened to depictions of plants from South Africa (Fig. 10).
Withoos and Moninckx also worked for private collectors, among them Agnes Block (1629–1704), a woman who played a central role in the network of garden lovers and botanical collectors active at the end of the seventeenth century. Block assembled a magnificent collection of plants that she cultivated in the garden of her country house on the River Vecht. When her plants blossomed she would commission artists to make watercolours of all the rare species, collecting hundreds of drawings in botanical albums. Botany had traditionally been the field in which women had been able to operate with a certain autonomy. To do justice to the role that women played in botany, the exhibition shines a spotlight on Agnes Block.
The only surviving botanical album from her possession is on display (Fig. 11), as is the portrait by Jan Weenix of Block in her garden with her husband and two step-grandchildren (Fig. 12). Block was particularly famous in her day for being the first person in Europe to succeed in cultivating a South American pineapple, a sweet-smelling fruit of nearly mythical status. At left on this painting, we see the pineapple plant with its fruit.
It has been a wonderful challenge to bring together the work of as many women as possible in this show. In the selection for the exhibition, it was not the fact of the womanhood of these artists that was the leading criterion, but the high quality of their work.
Ariane van Suchtelen studied art history at the University of Groningen. After working in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, she became curator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where she has curated many exhibitions on Dutch and Flemish art, including in recent years: Jan Steen’s Histories (2018), Nicolaes Maes (2019–2020), Fleeting—Scents in Colour (2021) and In Full Bloom (2022). Ariane van Suchtelen has published extensively on her field of specialisation, Dutch and Flemish painting of the seventeenth century.
The exhibition In Full Bloom is on at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, from 10 February to 6 June 2022. For further reading, see the exhibition catalogue by Ariane van Suchtelen (editor), Fred G. Meijer, Erik A. de Jong, Epco Runia, Charlotte Rulkens and Marya Albrecht. This post is an adaptation of Ariane van Suchtelen’s essay in the catalogue, “On Women, Botany and the Art of Flower Painting,” pp. 34–59 (with further literature).
Other Art Herstory blog posts you might enjoy:
Rachel Ruysch’s Vase of Flowers with an Ear of Corn, by Lizzie Marx
A Clara Peeters for the Mauritshuis, by Dr. Quentin Buvelot
Alida Withoos: Creator of beauty and of visual knowledge, by Catherine Powell
Curiosity and the Caterpillar: Maria Sibylla Merian’s Artistic Entomology, by Dr. Kay Etheridge
Floral Still Life, 1726—A Masterpiece by Rachel Ruysch, by Dr. Lawrence W. Nichols
From a Project on Women Artists: The Calendar and the Cat Lady, by Dr. Lisa Kirch
Barbara Regina Dietzsch: Enlightened Flower Painter, by Andaleeb Badiee Banta
Gesina ter Borch: Artist, not Amateur, by Dr. Nicole E. Cook
Anna Maria van Schurman: Brains, Arts and Feminist avant la lettre, by Maryse Dekker
Thérèse Schwartze (1851–1918), by Ien G.M. van der Pol
The Protofeminist Insects of Giovanna Garzoni and Maria Sibylla Merian, by Prof. Emma Steinkraus