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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Careers

Rachel Ruysch, 1706, Godfried Schalcken (left)
Maria van Oosterwijck,1671, Wallerant Vaillant (right)
Two of a kind, separated by a generation and the judgments of art historians.
Seldom does the opportunity arise in which we can judge the judgments of art historians past and present with any degree of objectivity. Art, by its very nature, is subjective. Style is subjective, content is subjective, even the artists technical virtuosity is subjective, ruled by what the artist wished to proclaim, which is likewise subjective. Although they are often linked, the arts and sciences have as their major difference, the subjective verses the objective. Art deals with feelings and aesthetics. Science deals with provable facts which can be replicated by others. The accumulation of vast quantities of such facts yields data. About the only data associated with art has to do with selling prices, which, as every artist will tell you, are anything but objective, thus making them also subjective.
Flowers on a Tree Trunk,
Rachel Ruysch
Flower Still-life, 1669,
Maria van Oosterwijck
Today I came upon the work of two artists who had so much in common they could almost be considered the basis for an art experiment. They also had a couple differences, which we might deem to be outcomes, the only common factor being the judgments of art historians since their time. Maria van Oosterwijck and Rachel Ruysch were both Dutch Golden Age floral painters. Maria was born in 1630, Rachel in 1664, so there was almost exactly one generation between them, though the century which we call the Dutch Golden Age was so consistently economically and aesthetically that the age difference makes little difference. To view their work, one does see differences, Maria (above, left), being more prone to still-lifes featuring flowers while Rachel was more of a purist in that regard, painting pretty much only flowers (above, right). In terms of technique, there was virtually no difference between them. They were both extremely talented within their specialty. Marie, on rare occasions, painted a few portraits.
Vanitas Still-life, 1668, Maria Oosterwijck
Now, the differences. Marie van Oosterwijck died in 1693 at the age of sixty three. Rachel Ruysch died in 1750 at the age of eighty-six, having had a career more than twenty years longer than her competition. They likely knew each other despite their age difference in that Rachel's instructor in Amsterdam was Willem van Aelst, whose studio was across the street from that of Marie Oosterwijck. Van Aelst even courted Marie van Oosterwijck for a time. (She turned down his offer of marriage.) During Rachel's apprenticeship to van Aelst, Marie was already a successful professional floral artist. Whether they were friends or not is an interesting conjecture but not really relevant, even if Marie may have had some limited influence as to Rachel's work. There styles and techniques are simply too much alike to get involved with the subtleties of influences. Much more telling is the fact the Marie Oosterwijck never married, though she did raise an orphaned nephew. Rachel Ruysch, on the other hand, did marry. In 1693 Marie married the Amsterdam portrait painter, Juriaen Pool. They had ten children.
Basket of Flowers, 1711. Rachel Ruysch
Juxtaposed side by side with this ultimate example of the professional "working mother," Marie Oosterwijck could be considered the ultimate example of a savvy professional businesswomen, at a time when neither traits were common in Dutch society and especially the wildly competitive Dutch art world. Marie Oosterwijck had an agent, one who promoted her career and her paintings among the wealthy art collectors and royalty of Germany, France, England, Poland, Austria, and virtually everywhere else that financial fortunes flowed freely for flowery wall decorations. Such royal personages as Louis XIV of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I; William III of England all collected her work. Marie (or rather, her agent) sold three pieces to the King of Poland, and other work to Augustus II, who later became King of Poland. Needless to say, when you're dealing with royalty, the agent earned his keep, while Marie also did quite well for herself.
Vanitas with Sunflower and Jewelry Box, ca. 1665, Maria van Oosterwijck
History records that Rachel Ruysch also had an international clientele. But virtually every major artist in Amsterdam during this period could make that claim. In 1699, Rachel and her husband moved from Amsterdam to The Hague (barely 25 miles southwest) where both continued their careers. A few years later, they again moved, this time to Dusseldorf where Rachel became the court painter for Johann Wilhelm, Elector of Palatine. During her lifetime, from the age of fifteen until shortly before her death, Rachel Ruysch's paintings grew to number in the hundreds, some 250 of which have well-documented attribution (many lesser works were quite small to satisfy the local, middle-class market). Art historians have deemed Rachel as among the top two or three floral artists of both the 16th and 17th-centuries. The Dutch love flowers, to the point of being a little crazy, even silly about them (in 1637, there was a financial panic brought on by a bursting "bubble" in the tulip bulb market). In any case, there was a thriving market for floral artists of Rachel's level of renown. At a time when Rembrandt was selling work for something in the neighborhood of 500 guilders, Rachel's flowery efforts were bringing 750 to as high as 1,200 guilders. In 1999, one of her paintings sold at auction for $508,000.
Rose Branch with Beetle and Bee, 1741, Rachel Ruysch.
The beetle (lower left) seems somewhat imaginative.
Art history has not been so kind to Marie van Oosterwijck. Marie often painted vanitas still-lifes, meaning arrangements of objects having to do with the temporal nature of life (another Dutch infatuation). By contrast, Rachel Ruysch's paintings were mostly decorative, beautiful to look at in their exquisite detail, but having little real meaning beyond that. Van Oosterwijck was deeply religious, often imbuing her paintings with profound spiritual meaning through the use of various symbols involving time and the fragile nature of life itself--skulls, hourglasses, books, globes, half-eaten food, money, insects, wilted leaves, and of course, flowers. Van Oosterwijck decorated each of her floral paintings with a butterfly (or moth), seen as symbolic of Christ's resurrection. Van Oosterwijck's work is also far more richly colored than was that of Ruysch. The art critic and biographer, Arnold Houbraken, eulogized van Oosterwijck, but did not consider her to be a professional artist, despite the serious content, the exceptional quality, and the very large sums paid for her paintings by high profile collectors and members of European royalty.
Still-life with Bouquet of Flowers and
Plums, 1704, Rachel Ruysch
Bouquet of Flowers, 1670,
Marie van Oosterwijck
That begs the question as to why. Ruysch was seen by later art historians as one of the greatest Dutch painters of her time, certainly among women artist. Van Oosterwijck, receives only brief, half-hearted, mention by but one writer. Given the similarities in their work, even their level of professional success, that leaves only one likely answer. Rachel Ruysch fit the popular mold of a proper, married, child-bearing mother, who also painted surprisingly well. Marie van Oosterwijck, though in every way her equal, did not. Apparently, traditional, motherly, female stereotypes trump female businesswomen stereotypes both then and since then.

Still Life with Flowers, Insects and a Shell, 1689, Marie van Oosterwijck,
--her final painting.


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