Sumptuously cascading flowers, delicate bugs, juicy fruits and colourful rotting birds. There is more to the new exhibition of Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery than the title suggests.
Covering two hundred years, the exhibition’s twenty two paintings track the development of flower painting from Jan Brueghel the Elder in 1610 to Theodorus van Brussel in 1789. Small dark paintings of formal floral arrangements give way to large, light filled paintings of exotic fruits and expensive blooms in fantastical arrangements.
Underlying the obvious beauty of flowers is a darker undertone: life eventually gives way to death. In some paintings, the edges of the leaves and petals are starting to decay, while in others dead fish and birds are juxtaposed against the brash glory of flowers in full bloom. In Balthasar van der Alst’s painting, the message is stated clearly in an inscription: “What you see in these flowers, which appear so beautiful to you, will vanish… Beware. Only God’s word flourishes forever.”
It’s not all dark. The detailed botanical accuracy is breath-taking while little bugs hidden around the flowers are amusing. In Dirck de Bray’s painting an inquisitive bee explores the fallen petals as a ladybird wanders off. In Jacob van Walscappelle’s painting, a caterpillar dangles perilously by a delicate silk thread.
The exhibition’s biggest surprise was the name of a female painter amongst the men. During the Dutch Golden Age, a period of Dutch supremacy in a number of fields including art, Rachel Ruysch became an acclaimed botanical and still life painter. Her father was a professor of anatomy and botany, and from a young age Ruysch would draw items from his collection of skeletons, minerals and botanical samples. At fifteen she became an apprentice with a prominent flower painter in Amsterdam. Willem van Aelst taught her how to arrange a bouquet and painting techniques to achieve a more three dimensional, realistic effect. By eighteen years of age, Ruysch was working independently and selling works in her own name.
She continued working until a few years before her death at age 87. During her lifetime, she achieved great fame with poems written about her and commissions from across Europe. Her paintings sold for 750-1200 guilders By contrast, Rembrandt’s paintings rarely sold for more than 500 guilders in his lifetime. Not only did she produce hundreds of paintings, but she also managed to have ten children.
Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery is a small perfectly formed exhibition. Although many of the paintings are from the gallery’s collection, nine are on loan from private owners. This is the first time they are on display, and this is the first exhibition of this style in over 20 years. It is a perfect way to celebrate the flower season.
Feature image: detail of Flowers in a Vase by Paulus Theodorus van Brussel, 1789. Copyright National Gallery.