This elegant bouquet of spring and summer flowers arranged on a on a stone ledge before a niche dates from the early 1690s (circa 1691-1694), the beginning of the second decade of Rachel Ruysch’s celebrated 70-year career as one of Holland’s premier flower painters. This phase of the artist’s career was a particularly inventive one, during which she moved more decisively beyond her early artistic models (notably Otto Marseus van Schrieck for her forest floor paintings, and the flamboyant floral bouquets of her teacher Willem van Aelst), towards a more personal idiom that would result in a body of work of supreme refinement. Notably, she explored different ways of composing her painted bouquets, incorporated a new range of floral types, and experimented with a variety of backgrounds beyond the plain dark wall that characterized a great deal of Dutch flower painting up to this point.
The strong diagonal arrangement from lower left to upper right seen in the present painting emerged in Ruysch’s paintings during the late 1680s/early 1690s and became one of the stylistic trademarks of her mature work. While she adopted the diagonal from van Aelst’s own model, both for bouquets in a vase and for her delicate nosegays, she varied it considerably as we can see here. Ruysch composes with a greater number of floral varieties than van Aelst, pulling in wildflowers and willowy grasses together with the showier blossoms van Aelst preferred. Her use of the overblown variegated tulip in the present work, one of van Aelst’s favourite blossoms, is likely a nod to her teacher. But unlike van Aelst, she surrounds it with very common flowers such as sunflowers, honeysuckle and bindweed, some of which protrude to imply a secondary diagonal that crosses the primary axis creating an X. More than van Aelst ever would, she mixes common and rare, and also varies the sizes of her flowers considerably from quite large and ostentatious, to delicate and spindly. Additionally, her vase selection is more restrained than those her teacher preferred, choosing round, footless, dark glass vessels that never compete with the flowers which she reserves as the main event of her paintings. The squat vase also helps to anchor Ruysch’s bouquets visually by establishing a low centre of gravity: the strong diagonal arrangements can then cantilever far beyond the immediate footprint of the vase, without seeming to be on the verge of toppling over.
Also during the early 1690s, Ruysch tended to forego the shiny pink marble table tops that she often used during the 1680s, choosing instead unpolished stone ledges, often architecturally articulated as is the one in the present work. Often she showed little nicks in the edge of the stone. Additionally, during this period, Ruysch experimented a good deal with articulating the backgrounds of her flower pieces. She often included the suggestion of architectural events behind the bouquets, always painted with a deliberate haziness so as not to compete visually with the bouquet. Sometimes walls or cornices converge, while sometimes there is a glimpse of sky or a park beyond at left or right.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred Meijer and Dr. Marianne Berardi for confirming the attribution, on the basis of images. Dr. Berardi kindly contributed to this catalogue entry and will be including the painting in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Rachel Ruysch.