Rachel Ruysch was a power woman. She was an amazing floral still life painter and had a successful, international artist career.  She was court painter, sold her paintings for twice as much as Rembrandt – and in addition to that, she was also the mother of 10 children. You go girl!

Rachel Ruysch Revisited

Rachel Ruysch’s achievements are impressive  – by any standards and in any Century. But to do what she did 400 years ago, is highly remarkable. She was one of the most successful artists of her time in the Netherlands, but she is almost forgotten today. Maybe because art history is predominantly written by men? Anyways, she deserves to be dusted off and recognized for her extraordinary skills and achievements. Let’s take a look at her life and her art.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

Scientific Attention to Detail

Rachel Ruysch was born in 1664 in The Hague in the Netherlands. Many of the characteristics of her art are rooted in her family background. Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was a prominent scientist, a professor of anatomy and botany. He invented an enbalming method, that allowed him to embalm both human bodies as well as plants and flowers. Frederik built an extensive collection, a cabinet of curiosities of natural wonders. The young Rachel used her father’s collection to practice her drawing skills on, particularly on flowers and insects.

Visual Skills

In addition to being a prominent scientist her father was also an amateur painter. Rachel’s maternal family also contributed to her visual talents, as Rachel’s grandfather, Pieter Post was both painter and architect and Pieter’s brother was the painter Frans Post. Rachel was thus blessed with both visual skills and a scientific attention to details. Both of these gifts determined and characterized her as an artist.

Rachel Ruysch’s Budding Career

Rachel loved drawing and painting and showed great skill and promise. So when she was 15 her parents allowed her to become the apprentice of Willem van Aelst. Willem van Aelst was one of the most prominent still life painters at that time. Being his apprentice was a great opportunity and achievement for anyone, for a 15 year old girl it was even more remarkable.

The Influence from Willem van Aelst

Willem van Aelst had his own take on floral still lifes, which he passed on to his students. Traditional floral still lifes were much more stylized than natural in their appearance. They were often symmetrical in composition and the flowers were fresh and upright and always presented from their best side. Willem van Aelst, however, preferred a more natural and dynamic approach. His compositions were not symmetrical, but rather diagonal. This created a sense of movement. He also allowed the flowers to be seen when they were not fresh and allowed them to droop. This both made the image appear more dynamic and more natural. These ideas are all seen in Rachel Ruysch’s painting.

Marriage and Children

In 1693 Rachel Ruysch married the portrait painter Juriaen Pool and together they had 10 children. At that time in the Netherlands it was not unheard of that women had careers, also as artists. But they were expected to stop, once they were married and devote their time to family life and motherhood. Rachel’s sister Anna Ruysch was also a talented painter, but she stopped, as expected, when she was married. But there was no stopping Rachel!

Juriaen Pool's family portrait of himself, wife Rachel Ruysch and one of their children.

Rachel Ruysch in the spotlight with husband Juriaen Pool behind her.

Ignoring Traditional Gender Roles

Rachel continued to paint and was much more succesful than her husband. He accepted this fact and was actually quite modern in that sense.

Take a look at this family portrait he painted of himself, Rachel and their youngest son. Rachel is seen at her easel and Juriaen places himself in the background letting Rachel shine in the spotlight. He seems proud of his wife, the great painter, and doesn’t fight her for the attention.

Rachel Ruysch’s Blooming Career

Rachel Ruysch started selling her works independently, already when she was still an apprentice. She was very inspired by her master, Willem van Aelst, but she was also developing into an independent artist with her own signature style. Rachel was well-respected by her contemporaries and she received not only praise, but also a stream of commisions.

Rachel Ruysch sold her works for twice as much as Rembrandt.

Court Painter in Düsseldorf

On top on her commission work, Rachel was also appointed court painter in Düsseldorf from 1708-1716 for Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. This was both a prestigeous and profitable position. She had this position until Johann Wilhelm’s death. Afterwards Rachel Ruysch lived off her commissioned work. She was both one of the most respected painters of her time – and one of the wealthiest. She received very high sales prices for her works – often twice as much as Rembrandt!

A Closer Look at Rachel Ruysch’s Art

Rachel Ruysch was one of the most accomplished floral still life painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two people influenced her greatly – Willem van Aelst, her painting master, and her father, anatomy and botany professor, Frederik Ruysch. In her art Rachel Ruysch blends the influences from both of them, adds a touch of Rachel and creates her own signature style.

Style Breakdown

Rachel Ruysch paints both flowers, leaves and insects with microscopical detail, but she doesn’t merely document specimens. She also brings a lot of creativity and artistry to the canvas and filters the flowers through her artisctic vision.

Let’s make a breakdown of her artistic style:

  • Great detail in flowers
  • Wildness in flower depiction
  • Paintings are crawling with insects
  • Impossible bouquets
  • Some bouquets are in vases, others lie on a table
  • “S” shaped compositions
  • Dark backgrounds
  • Chiaroscuro lighting

Queen of Flowers

Rachel Ruysch was a master at painting flowers and captured them in microscopical detail. In her father’s study she was able to study both flowers, plants and insects from his extraordinary collection in great detail. Due to her father’s enbalming method the flowers and plants in his collection were captured in their prime, rather than dried or pressed. So Rachel had easy access to “fresh” flowers all the time. From an early age she studied them closely and used them to practise her drawing and painting skills on.

The influence from Willem van Aelst is evident in her bouquets. There is a wildness about the way she depicts flowers. The bouquets in her paintings are not arranged in an orderly fashion. She allows the flowers to droop and spill out over the vase. The flowers are not always shown from their best side either. This also goes for leaves, which often show their underside. Like van Aelst she also allows flowers to not always be in their prime. Some are drooping, some are wilting.

The flower bouquets were “impossible”. Because the flowers in them don’t bloom at the same time in nature.

The flower bouquets in the floral still life paintings often consist of “impossible” bouquets, as the flowers in them don’t bloom simultaneously in nature. In Rachel’s case she was able to pull this off convincingly, because of her father’s collection. Other flower painters made studies of fresh flowers and used them as the basis for later paintings.

Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop, Rachel Ruysch, 1716 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Microscopical Details

In addition to flowers, Rachel also studied insects in her father’s collection and drew and painted them. It was not uncommon to feature insects in the floral still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age, but Rachel Ruysch’s paintings are crawling with insects. Her still lifes are full of life. If you look at her paintings close-up, it is evident that she painted these small insects with microscopical detail. It is very likely that she has in fact studied insects in a microscope in her father’s, the anatomy and botany professor’s, study. At this time the modern microscope was spreading in the scientific circlrs in The Netherlands.


Some of Rachel Ruysch’s floral still lifes have a simplicity to their composition, as they depict a bouquet simply lying on a table. These floral still lifes resemble the bodegons of Francisco de Zurbaran and Adriaen Coorte (see examples here). However, most of her floral still lifes depict a bouquet in a vase. The compositions in these paintings are inspired by Willem van Aelst. Where he used diagonal compositions, she takes it up a notch and uses “S” shaped compositions that infuse her still lifes with both a dynamic energy and a natural feel.

Often she leaves a part of the table the bouquet sits on visible. This has 2 functions. 1) It grounds the bouquet in the painting. 2) It adds perspective to the painting. By showing the ledge of the table that the bouquet sits on, she adds a sense of depth to the painting.

Rachel Ruysch’s Version of Chiaroscuro

The flowers in Rachel Ruysch’s paintings are presented in front of a dark background, that really sets off the contours and make the flowers stand out.

This is typical of chiaroscuro lighting, which is dominant in the still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age. (Read more about chiaroscuro here). But Rachel Ruysch makes her own twists on the chiaroscuro lighting. In her paintings the bouquet is not evenly lit. The light falls in the middle of the bouquet and then fades to darkness from the middle and out.

Symbolic Artist or Scientist?

In Dutch Golden Age still lifes wilting flowers often had a symbolic meaning. They would symbolize mortality and death, as in the Vanitas and Memento Mori paintings. The question is, does Rachel Ruysch hint at Vanitas implications, or are her wilting and drooping flowers a scientific representation of the natural world as it is? It’s difficult to say. Arguments can be made for both. She is both the student of van Aelst and the botanist’s daughter. An artist with a scientist’s eye.

Painter by Heart

Rachel Ruysch was a painter by heart. For her painting was a passion project. She painted, because she couldn’t not paint! She couldn’t stop when she was married and society expected her to stop. And she couldn’t stop, when she no longer needed the money she earned from her paintings. In 1723 Rachel, together with her husband and one of their sons, hit the big jackpot in the Dutch lottery! They won 75.000 guilders, enough to support them for the rest of their lives. But that made no difference for Rachel. She continued to paint, as she always had. She painted until shortly before her death at the very ripe age of 86.

Rachel Ruysch Resurrected

Rachel Ruysch was a superstar artist in her lifetime. When she died no less than 11 poets wrote poems in tribute to her. But somehow her fame faded. Her name is no longer a household name, like some of her contemporaries. Why is that? Is it because art history is predominantly written by men? Men who choose to focus on other men? It’s certainly not the quality of her paintings, nor the importance she played in her lifetime.

Though you may not have known her name or her story before now, you might have known some of her paintings. Because her paintings pop up in many different places and in many different forms. You might have seen e.g. a shower curtain or a facemask with one of her paintings.

Will you help me resurrect Rachel Ruysch?

Share this article and let’s give her the attention she deserves!

Inspired by Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch is a great inspiration to me. I love to create and capture floral still lifes. I just use a camera instead of paint and brush. I use chiaroscuro lighting too, and like Rachel I also like to add a bit of wildness to my floral still lifes. I like my flowers to spill petals, droop and wilt. I also like to make floral still lifes with both wildflowers, dried flowers and seedheads.

See more of my floral still lifes

Further Readings


What are your thoughts and feelings about Rachel Ruysch? I’d love to hear.

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