6.4 Ruysch’s Popularity in German-Speaking Countries
Rachel Ruysch’s still lifes have been strikingly popular in German-speaking countries, from the early 18th century onwards. As has already been explored, Ruysch painted six commissions for the Elector in Düsseldorf. The current state of research lists nine additional still lifes in art collections in the German-speaking countries in the 18th century, which makes the number of Ruysch paintings with an early provenance fifteen altogether.1 That is a remarkable figure, compared to just five Dutch, two French and no other known 18th century provenances so far. This ratio continued into the 19th century, and even up to today Rachel Ruysch’s still lifes have been extremely popular in Germany. Thirty-seven paintings by Rachel Ruysch are currently to be found in public collections in German-speaking countries and an additional sixteen paintings have formerly been there, but later sold. In the Netherlands just four works by Ruysch are to be found in public collections. Although it might not be the fairest comparison, it does give an indication of the large German interest in Ruysch’s work.
It is remarkable that Rachel Ruysch gained international renown during her lifetime. Biographer Johan van Gool wrote that ‘haere Kunsttaferelen gezocht en in de vermaertste Kabinetten van Europe geplaetst worden’ (her works were looked for and placed in the most important collections in Europe).2 Apparently her paintings were attractive enough to be internationally admired not only by Johann Wilhelm II, the elector who appointed her as his court painter, but also by other important art collectors, such as the two men from Leipzig discussed above. All three collections mentioned included many more works by foreign artists; for example, Ruysch was just one of Johann Wilhelm's 15 court painters.3 Dutch art was especially popular at the various courts in Germany as well as in large private German art collections, so in fact the popularity of Ruysch’s work in Germany formed part of a general trend – and it might therefore not be so surprising to learn that her works were so popular in Germany. However, it is still remarkable to note that Ruysch was able to build this international career as a woman. It was very unusual for women in the 17th century to be trained as a painter, and it was even more unusual for them to build a professional career – especially when married. Ruysch’s younger sister Anna was trained as a still life painter at Van Aelst’s workshop as well, but she quit painting after she got married in 1688, at the age of 21. Most of the (very few) women who were trained as painters during the 17th and 18th century were brought up in artist families, and therefore became acquainted with the profession from an early age. They painted in their spare time, or for commissions from a very select group of clients. Very few of Ruysch’s female contemporaries had a professional career comparable to hers, although Clara Peeters and Judith Leyster, for example, had some renown in the earlier Dutch Golden Age. Ruysch’s contemporary, still life painter Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693), an older pupil of Van Aelst, did develop an international clientele (including several clients in Germany) but never became appointed as court painter.
Rachel’s father, the famous professor Frederik Ruysch, undoubtedly helped his daughter set her sights on an international career. He had a wide network of contacts all over Europe and lots of visitors came to see his anatomy museum in Amsterdam, where Rachel’s art was probably displayed as well. This network surrounding Frederik and Rachel Ruysch will be analyzed extensively in further research. The high quality of Ruysch’s very detailed works, together with the depiction of unusual exotic flowers, may well have been the reasons for her success. The Amsterdam botanical gardens, of which her father was one of the founders, must have given her access to the rare plants she painted.
The German interest for Rachel Ruysch’s work is clear from the amount of paintings that were acquired by German collections from the 18th century onwards, but also from multiple sales in German territories through the ages.4 German travelers, like Von Uffenbach, discovered her paintings in Amsterdam and spread the word about her high quality work internationally. The aforementioned Leipziger collectors also seems to have familiarized themselves with Ruysch’s work during their trip to the Netherlands: one of them even made the effort to acquire Ruysch’s paintings at a Dutch auction. He must have been following the international art market closely, with his wish list ready.
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that it was not only fans and collectors who were interested in Ruysch’s still lifes – but also German contemporaries who were trying to view or acquire her art. The painters Wiegand and Fischer have already been mentioned, but there were many more. It is even the case that several early copies of Ruysch’s works were made by German copyists. I would like to end this article with a notion posited by the 18th century artist (Johann Heinrich) Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829), the most famous painter from the Tischbein family from Hesse, who made a study trip to Amsterdam in 1772-1773 and recorded his experiences and memories. He visited descendants of Rachel Ruysch – who had been dead for over twenty years at the time of his visit – who had kept some of her works as memorabilia.5 He admired these works and expressed his amazement about Ruysch’s long and flourishing career. He compared a floral piece painted when she was only seven years old with one created when she was seventy and stated that they both appeared to be of the same quality.6 Tischbein’s findings demonstrate the continuing success of Rachel Ruysch’s art. The admiration of her works by fans, collectors and colleagues, which established itself and grew during her lifetime, continues until today. Thanks to the many cultural and scientific exchanges in 17th and 18th century Amsterdam, Ruysch was able to build this international career.
1 These numbers are based on the list of Rachel Ruysch paintings I assembled for my PhD research, based on Grant 1956, Berardi 1998, RKD images (consulted September 2016); and recent auctions.
2 Van Gool 1750-1751, vol. 1, p. 212.
4 See for example: Hofstede de Groot index cards, RKD (RKDexcerpts).
5 Schiller/Tischbein 1861, p. 99; Jacobsen Jensen 1936, p. 36-37.
6 Most probably Tischbein visited Wilhelmina Rijnders (c. 1728-1774), the widow of Rachel’s eldest son Frederik Ruysch Pool (1696-1765), or perhaps one of the children of Jan Willem, the youngest son and Rachel’s only grandchildren. Frederik traded his mother’s art at the end of her life, that is why it is very probable that his widow still kept some of Rachel Ruysch’s works: Amsterdam City Archive, notarial archive (access number 5075), 7693 (notary A. Tzeewen), no. 115: 1745, 2nd December: Staat en Inventaris Juriaan Pool en Rachel Ruysch. And when Van Gool wrote his biography he was involved by providing a poem about his mother to Van Gool: Van Gool 1750-1751, p. 220.