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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects

Rachel Ruysch, a Dutch artist, painted stunning still life artworks, specializing in flowers. Her paintings were highly valued, even more than Rembrandt's. In 17th century Holland, artists focused on specific subjects, catering to a growing merchant class. Ruysch's work combined scientific studies and beautiful compositions, reflecting the era's fascination with microscopes and the natural world. Rachel Ruysch, Fruit and Insects, 1711, oil on wood, 44 x 60 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) Steven: We're in Uffizi, and we're looking at a still life painting by a Dutch artist whose name is Rachel Ruysch. Beth: Ruysch was incredibly successful during her very long career. She painted from a time she was in her teens until she was in her 80s. Steven: More then 60 years. And you can see why her paintings were so widely popular. In fact, her paintings regularly sold for double what Rembrandt's paintings sold for. Beth: In Holland, artists specialized in certain types of paintings, artists like Rembrandt painted portraits, others, like Rachel Ruysch painted still life paintings, others like Ruisdael painted landscapes. They were painting for a widening merchant class in 17th century Holland. Steven: She specialized in flowers, but this particular painting is fruit and insects. Beth: And it seems to be about the Autumn, the subject of the harvest, fruits and vegetables that are harvested in the Autumn. Corn, we have squash. Steven: Chestnuts and grapes, but also wheat and this reminds us that still lifes were often not only simple representations of items that might be put on the table, but would have symbolic value. Beth: Any Christian looking at this painting in the 17th century would have seen the wheat and the grapes and thought of the Eucharist, of the sacrament of communion of the body and blood of Christ. Steven: The bread and wine. Beth: And it's also important to realize that this is not just a scene that she would have assembled on the table and painted. This is likely a composite of studies of grapes, studies of peaches, studies of plums, studies of a nest with eggs in it, studies of a butterfly, that are then combined imaginatively into this composition. Steven: Into a microcosm. This was a time in the late 17th and early 18th century, when the microscope was perfected and we were looking into worlds beyond what we have known before. Beth: And the scientific interest into categorizing the natural world and looking closely at it and in fact a great example of this is Rachel's own father, Frederick Ruysch. Steven: He was one of the most famous scientists of his days, specialized in botany and the study of anatomy, especially human anatomy. Beth: And he was an artist, he had a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of natural wonders, that he published and illustrated himself. Steven: Rachel's mother on the other hand was the daughter of one of the most famous architects in the Netherlands at this time. A perfect preparation for a woman who would spend her long life looking at infinitely small details of the natural world. Beth: And painting these things as though as if they were scientific specimens. Steven: But bringing them together in beautiful compositions. Beth: What I notice are the color harmonies, so we have these reds and greens, red and green are complimentary colors, the green grapes on one side, the red on the other. Balanced by the red plums on the other side of the composition. Steven: You can see them also within individual elements, look for instance at the bunch of grapes on the right side, those red-purple grapes, except they have a little bit of a dust powder blue and we see the same thing in the plum on th extreme left. Beth: The butterfly in the foreground, maybe it's a moth, that's just landing is a good reminder that Rachel's father, Frederick collected specimens like butterflies and preserved them and in fact was a master at preserving parts of human anatomy and animal insect species and had such a famous collection that he sold it to Peter the Great, the Tzar of Russia. Steven: I love that butterfly, it looks as it is just about to land, but perhaps having second thoughts because there is a salamander or a small lizard. Beth: That idea that you mentioned before, of a world of its own. Steven: This is a painting that is about slow, careful discovery and this is an artist whose mastery rewards the patient observer. (jazzy piano music)