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Dutch Golden Age still life paintings are a layered cake. Layers of extreme materialism alternate with symbolic layers of Christian dogma. The luxury goods in the paintings satisfy the sweet tooth of materialism and symbolism adds substance to the cake. But is the essence of the paintings decadent, or is it moralizing? Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between materialism and symbolism in the Dutch Golden Age still lifes.

Materialism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes

When you look at Dutch Golden Age still lifes with modern eyes they are very beautiful, aesthetically. But they are also very politically uncorrect, anti-woke and anti-green. The decadent displays of expensive cultivated flowers, luxury foods and luxury objects brought home from the colonies by the rich, white colonizers express an extreme materialism and a world view that can be hard to swallow today. Those merchants clearly didn’t think about food waste, biodiversity, carbon footprint or ‘less is more’ minimalism!

But were the Dutch merchants simply the rappers with thick gold chains and flashy cars of their time? Are the paintings simply Baroque bling? Let’s take a closer look at how the developments in society intertwine with the developments in the art world.

Were the Dutch merchants simply the rappers with thick gold chains and flashy cars of their time? Are the paintings simply Baroque bling?

Banketje/Pronk Still Life | Blog post: Materialism and Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

Lavish display of luxury foods and luxury goods (‘Pronk Still Life’ , Jan Davidsz. de Heem)

Merchants & Artists

In the Dutch Golden Age the emerging merchant class provided a buyer’s market for still life artists. The merchants were well-to-do and wanted to show off their wealth. One way of doing that was by buying luxury goods from the colonies (and showing them off). Another way was by purchasing art. And even better yet was to combine the two; to commission art that showed off their luxury goods. This new business opportunity for still life painters helped pave the way for new subgenres of still life painting.

New Subgenres of Still Lifes

Still lifes underwent a great development in the Dutch Golden Age. Still life images had existed before, but it was not until The Dutch Golden Age that still lifes became a genre in its own right. There were many varities of still lifes. Existing subgenres developed and new subgenres were born.

‘Banketje’ Still Lifes

Pronk still life | blog post: 'Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes' | Patinatur Studio

Up until now food still lifes had been dominated by ‘ontbijtjes’ (NL. ‘breakfasts’) still lifes. These were simple and modest, showing everyday ingredients, meals and crockery. In that respect they were closely related to the simple and austere Spanish ‘bodegons’.

But the new merchant class were not simple farmers. And they were not modest. They were rich and wanted the world to know. Food still lifes could be used to show off their affluent lifestyle. So the modest ‘Ontbijtjes’ developed into ‘Banketjes’ (NL. ‘banquets’). Ingredients and simple meals were replaced by lavish banquets with luxury foods. Large shellfish and exotic fruits filled canvasses. The paintings displayed feasts that were worthy of kings and queens.

‘Pronk’ Still Lifes

Pronk still life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

In addition to showing off wealth with luxury foods, the logical step was to also show off wealth with luxury goods. So fine china, glassware and silverware joined the luxury foods in ‘Pronk’ (NL. ‘ostentatious’) still lifes. Some pronk still lifes were a combination of food and objects, others focused solely on objects.

‘Vanitas’ Still Lifes

Vanitas still life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

Pronk still lifes were not the only subgenre of still lifes that featured objects. Another, and perhaps even more well-known today, was the vanitas (lat. ‘vanity’).

Vanitas were not used to express wealth, but instead the Christian dogma of the Calvinist Dutch. It was a highly moralizing genre. Every object in a vanitas still life had a symbolic meaning. These symbols all expressed the Christian dogma that worldly goods and pleasures are futile, life is short and death is certain.

Floral Still Life

Floral Still Life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

Floral still lifes was one of the most popular still life subgenres. They are a feast for the eyes – then and today. A bouquet of flowers might seem innocent, natural and in no way materialistic. But these were bouquets of cultivated flowers. The Dutch took great pride in cultivation, particularly cultivation of tulips. They were so crazy about tulips that it is referred to as ‘Tulip Mania’. Tulip bulbs reached outrageous prices and in 1637 the bubble burst, the first economic bubble. So theses flowers were not simply flowers. They were also status symbols.

> Rachel Ruysch – 17th Century superstar Artist / Superwoman

Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes

Now we’ve satisfied the sweet tooth of materialism and tasted the tempting part of the layered cake – the filling, the icing and the sprinkles. Now let’s move on to the cake layers and add substance to the layered cake. Let’s look at the symbolism in the Dutch Golden Age still life paintings.

Because there’s more to the still lifes paintings than simple materialsm. Symbolism adds another layer to these artworks. The symbols used in Dutch Golden Age still lifes fall into 3 categories: earthly life/wealth, mortality and Christianity. The overall story told through symbolism is of the contrast between earthly life and death/eternal life.

The overall story in the still lifes is the contrast between pleasurable earthly life and death/eternal life.

Let’s tak a closer look at the symbols used in the still lifes. The symbols fall into 4 categories: food, flowers, animals and objects.

Food Symbolism

The symbolic language of food works both on a general and a specific level. On a general level fresh food symbolizes abundance and riches. Decaying and rotten food, on the other hand, symbolizes ageing, mortality and death. Food symbolism also works on a specific level. Each piece of food has its own distinct meaning. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Banketje/Pronk Still Life | Blog post: Materialism and Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

    • Lobster, shellfish or meat = wealth, gluttony and temptation
    • Fish, lamb = Jesus
    • Bread = everyday life, humility, the body of Christ
    • Bread + wine = the Eucharist
    • Grape = blood of Christ
    • Pomegranate = fertility or the Church
    • Apple = temptation
    • Lemon = the bittersweetness of life
    • Peach = good health

Flower Symbolism

Just like in food symbolism the symbolic language of flowers also works on both a general and a specific level. On a general level wilting and drooping flowers symbolize decay and death. And the expensive cultivated flowers represent wealth. On a specific level the individual flowers each have their own specific meaning. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Floral Still Life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

    • Rose = Virgin Mary, Venus, love
    • Tulip = nobility
    • Violet = modesty
    • Sunflower = divine love and devotion
    • Carnation = resurrection and eternal life
    • Ivy = resurrection
    • Poppy = death, laziness
    • Wheat = Christ, immortallity and resurrection

Animal Symbolism

Animal symbolism also works on both a general and a specific level. Dead animals symbolize death and all the creepy crawlers on and near food symbolize the imminent decay and death. On top of that, the living animals each have their own specific meaning. Let’s take a closer look at them.

    • Turtle = long life
    • Ant = hard working
    • Bee = industriousness or how helpless we are against the course of destiny
    • Butterfly = transformation, the resurrection of Christ
    • Dragonfly = the devil

Object Symbolism

Objects appear in both the pronk still lifes and in the vanitas. In the pronk still lifes the luxury objects symbolize wealth on a general level. In the vanitas still lifes the story/message is conveyed solely through objects. Each specific object has a symbolic meaning. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Vanitas still life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

    • Globe = the earth and the sky
    • Glass = a life of luxury
    • Book = pride in knowledge
    • Violin/musical instrument = pleasure, the futility of earthly existence (easily snapped strings symbolize the broken threads of time)
    • Chalice = Christian Church
    • Overturned glass/vessel = emptiness of life
    • Broken vessels = loss of innocense
    • seashell = birth, resurrection
    • Chaplet (prayer beads) = resurrection

Memento Mori symbols

Vanitas still lifes all tell the story that earthly life is fleeting and futile and death is inevitable. Memento mori (Lat. ‘remember you must die’) symbols recur in all vanitas and function as reminders of mortality and death. Let’s take a closer look at these symbols.

Vanitas still life | Blog post: Materialism & Symbolism in Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes | Patinatur Studio

    • Skull = mortality
    • Hourglass = passage of time
    • Watch = passage of time
    • Candle = life burning out
    • Bubble = evanescence

Were the Dutch Decadents or Moralizers?

The still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age were a layered cake of materialism and Christian dogma. The two go hand in hand. But which is more important? Were they predominantly flashy rappers or were they pious priests? Decadents or moralizers?

Moralizing Messages

It is common belief that the still lifes are moralizing. That the materialistic and decadent elements in the still lifes are simply a storytelling element that helps tell the story that earthly life is empty. One shouldn’t be too attached to beauty and wealth. That all sounds very pious. But is that really all there is to it? Were the Dutch really that pious?  Or were they closet decadents?

Joy in Decadence

Maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the religious and memento mori symbols were added to the still lifes, as a justification for wallowing in all the material wealth and sensousness displayed in the still lifes. Maybe beauty lovers needed that excuse in the Calvinist Dutch Republic.

Maybe the religious symbols were added to the paintings, as a justification for wallowing in material wealth and sensousness.

There is an awful lot of focus on the beauty of the objects and flowers and the deliciousness of the food, if the only point of the paintings was that these things were of no real importance.

One thing is certain, the paintings are delicious eye candy that can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of their religious disposition. And regardless of their birth date. Because the paintings are as delicious today as they were 400 years ago.

So what do you think? Were the still lifes pious and moralizing, or were they materialistic and decadent?

Leave a comment!

See my still lifes
Further Readings

Online Articles

Books 

  • Nature and Its Symbols (Guide to Imagery) (Impelluso)
  • A Closer Look: Still Life (Erika Langmuir)
  • Still Life (Gian Casper Bott)
  • Dutch Flower Painting, 1600-1750 (Paul Taylor)

 

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Still lifes, both in photography and painting, depict a collection of objects. At a first glance they can seem static and meaningless, but still lifes can be effective visual storytelling. Here, we’ll take a closer look at storytelling in still life photography. Both at the types of stories you can tell, plus how you tell stories with objects and flowers.

Visual Storytelling in Still Life Photography

Still life – nature morte. There is not much life in the names, is there? But are still lifes really so still? Are they dead?

Not if you ask me. I think they can be full of life. Full of energy. And full of stories.

Do all still lifes have elements of narrative and storytelling? No. Many still lifes are simply visual poetry. They don’t aim to tell a story. They are visual poems that focus on colour, form or atmosphere. For now, we focus on the still lifes that tell a story.

Still lifes can be effective visual storytelling.

Types of Storytelling in Still Life Photography

So we’ve established that still objects in a photograph or painting can tell a story. Let’s look at storytelling in still life photography under a microscope. What types of stories can you tell in still lifes?

The stories fall into 3 categories:

    • Statement
    • Characterization (of someone/something)
    • Development

Statement

Many still lifes make a statement, both classic still lifes and modern. The still lifes that convey a statement fall into 3 categories – Vanitas, Memento Mori and other still lifes that make a comment.

Vanitas

‘Vanitas’ is latin and means ‘vanity’. It is a subgenre of still lifes that was hugely popular in The Dutch Golden Age. The vanitas still lifes all make the (Christian) statement that life is transient and earthly possessions futile.

Memento Mori

‘Memento Mori’ is Latin and means ‘remember you must die’. The memento mori subgenre is closely related to vanitas. The memento mori still lifes can both make the statement that all that lives must die, but also that you better enjoy life while you can. Many vanitas still lifes contain memento mori elements, such as candles, hourglasses, skulls etc.

Comment

Vanitas and memento mori are the most common statements made in still lifes. They are both moralizing and a product of their time.

However, all kinds of statements can be conveyed in still lifes. Modern still lifes that convey a statement fall into this category.

Characterization

The depicted objects in a still life can also function as a characterization of either a situation or a person. The objects then serve as attributes.

Development

The story told in a still life can also be one of development. The objects then represent stages or phases in a narrative. On their own the objects would be meaningless, but in context they gain meaning and together they tell a story.

Methods of Storytelling in Still Life Photography

The stories told in still life painting and still life photography are stories of statements, characterizations or development.

These stories are told with the following 3 storytelling methods:

    • Symbolism
    • Juxtaposition
    • Progression

These storytelling methods can either be used alone or in combination.

Symbolism

In The Dutch Golden Age the preferred storytelling method was symbolism. The stories in the still lifes were told in a hidden code language.

Most objects in still lifes had a symbolic meaning, e.g. pearls symbolized virginity and an hourglass symbolized mortality. If not familiar with art history, most modern viewers would miss the coded symbols and just see pretty images of seemingly meaningless objects. But in the Dutch Golden Age viewers were familiar with the code language and were able to ‘read’ the stories told in the still life paintings.

Juxtaposition

Another method to tell stories with is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition is the placing of objects next to each other, in order to highlight similarities or differences. When objects are placed together, they enter into a relationship with each other. The viewer is invited to consider this relationship and derive a story from this.

A major difference with symbolism is that in symbolism an object has a fixed meaning. In juxtaposition the same object can have different meanings depending on the constallations they are part of. The story comes from the context.

Progression

The last storytelling method is progression. The objects in the still life form a series, where the relationship between them is either temporal or causal. So either the story depicts a progession in time or a progression in events that are in a cause and effect relationship. This method is a perfect match for stories of development.

Analysis of Storytelling in Still Life Photos

‘Public Enemy #1’

‘Public Enemy #1’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Statement
statement in form of a comment,”All plants are created equal”.

Stylistic inspiration from Dutch Golden Age floral still lifes. But instead of a bouquet of highly cultivated flowers, it presents a lush bouquet of one of the most hated weeds, ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria), public enemy #1 amongst garden owners.

> Storytelling method(s): Symbolism
The weed is a symbol of beauty in imperfections and the unplanned.


‘Springtime Vanitas’

Photo Art | Dark and moody vanitas inspired springtime object still life photo

‘Springtime Vanitas’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Statement
statement in form of a vanitas/memento mori,”All that lives must die”.

> Storytelling method(s): Symbolism
The egg shells, down and spring flowers are all symbols of spring and new life. The hourglass, on the other hand, is a memento mori reminder, a symbol of life eventually running out.


 

‘The Explorer’ & ‘The Voyer’

Photo Art | Dark and moody still life with globe, suitcase, field bottle and camera

‘The Explorer’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen / Tina Thyde | Patinatur Studio

Photo Art | Dark and moody still life with binoculars, kingfisher and birdcage

‘The Voyer’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen / Tina Thyde | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Characterization (of a person)
Characterizations of 2 kinds of people, doers (the explorer) and dreamers (the voyer).

> Storytelling method(s): Juxtaposition + symbolism
When placed together these symbolic objects form a characterization.

‘The Explorer’: the objects symbolize active exploration – globe, suitcase, camera and field bottle.

‘The Voyer’: the objects symbolize passive peeking and studying of others – binoculars, taxidermy bird (Kingfisher), books and birdcage.


‘Corona Pandemic’

Photo Art | 'Corona pandemic' 'Old Master' inspired still life with toilet paper, hand sanitizer and protective glove.

‘Corona Pandemic’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Characterization (of a situation)

Characterization of the time of the first lockdown in the corona pandemic.

> Storytelling method(s): Juxtaposition

Placed together these objects – toilet paper, hand sanitizer and protective glove – form a characterization of the first lockdown.

Stylistic inspiration from Dutch Golden Age still lifes. The lemon peel dangling over the edge in Dutch still lifes is here replaced by a roll of toilet paper.


‘The Life Cycle of a Daffodil’

Dark and moody flat lay floral still life with daffodils in all its stages

‘The Life Cycle of a Daffodil’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Development

The image shows the life cycle of a daffodil. 

> Storytelling method(s): Progression

Daffodils are placed in a circle in a temporal progression. Each daffodil represents a stage in a daffodil’s development. From sprouted bulb to bud, to partially unfolded flower, unfolded flower, flower in full bloom, wilted flower and to bulb again.


‘The Echo of Summer’

Photo Art | Dark and moody still life with bouquet of dried seedheads

‘The Echo of Summer’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Statement

Statement in form of a comment, “All flowers are created equal”.

Stylistic inspiration from Dutch Golden Age floral still lifes. But instead of an arranged bouquet of lush cultivated flowers, it presents a bouquet of dried wildflowers simply lying on a surface.

> Storytelling method(s): Symbolism

The dried wildflowers symbolize beauty in the natural and imperfect.

‘Nature’s Waste’

Photo Art | Dark and moody still life with nature's waste

‘Nature’s Waste’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Characterization, statement 

Characterization of the waste that nature leaves behind.

Statement in form of a comment, “Nature’s waste is beautiful”.

> Storytelling method(s): Juxtaposition, symbolism

Each object is a waste product from nature. The connection between them is made clear by juxtaposition.


‘Bloom Is Just a Phase’

Photo Art | Dark and moody vanitas still life with hibiscus flowers

‘Bloom Is Just a Phase’ | Trine Mandal Mortensen | Patinatur Studio

> Story type(s): Statement, development

Statement in form of a comment, “Look beyond the prime”.

The hibiscus flowers in full bloom steal the show, but there is beauty to be found in all stages of the development of a flower – bud, bloom and wilted.

Or in all stages of life – childhood, youth, adulthood and old age.


> Storytelling method(s): Juxtaposition, progression

The progression from bud to flower in bloom and wilted flower tells the story of a life cycle.

The juxtaposition of a bouquet of blooming flowers with the entire life cycle shows that there is more to flowers (or people) than their prime.


The collections of objects and flowers can tell many different stories with different methods of storytelling.

A Still Life Is Not Just a Still Life is Not Just a Still Life

So there can be storytelling in still life photography. The collections of objects and flowers can tell many different stories with different methods of storytelling. Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose”. But sometimes a flower is not just a flower. A floral still life is not just a floral still life. And an object is not just an object. By using symbolism, juxtaposition or progression, they can tell stories of statements, characterizations and developments.

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To capture or to create? – That is the question. At least as regards all matters photo editing. Is it ok to alter reality in a photo? Does that make it a fake? Or are you missing out, if you don’t enhance your image? I recently had to adjust my own views on how far I go in editing.

Adjusting the Image in Editing

Usually I don’t change much in my images. I adjust light to create the moody feel I like. (This is done both when I shoot the image and also in editing). When doing portraits I also do mild editing – removing blemishes, sharpening eyes and the like. But nothing that alters the image.

Lightroom or Photoshop?

I do my editing in Adobe Lightroom. It has much fewer functions than Adobe Photoshop. This is a huge advantage, in my opinion. If you don’t want to alter your image, or if you’re new to editing, it’s really nice not to be overwhelmed by the endless possibilities in Photoshop. In Lightroom you can make all the adjustments to a photo that you need, but you can’t make major alterations. The furthest you can go in Lightroom is to remove unwanted elements in your photo. This is where it overlaps with Photoshop. You can read more about when to use Lightroom and when to use Photoshop here.

Creating the Image in Editing

If you want to make dramatic alterations, you can do that in Adobe Photoshop. The possibilities are endless. You can change the background or combine several images into a new one (Compositing). You can add elements (with Brush tool). You can do just about anything you fancy. But does that mean that you should?

Perception Versus Reality

In photography, as well as in life, there’s often a gap between perception and reality. Even if you intend to create a realistic image, you sometimes have to choose if you want to be true to your feelings or to your eyes.

The Fairytale Garden & The Ruthless Viewfinder

Let’s take a closer look at this photo I took of my mum’s garden. The garden is a wild Paradise, a fairytale garden. When you’re in the garden all you see is plants, wildlife and a cute little cabin. You are encapsulated in all this natural gorgeousness and don’t notice the traces of ordinary life. The laundry pole, recycling bin and other ugly mundane elements are not there. All you see is magic. But when you look at the photos afterwards, oh boy, are they there. Suddenly the ugly elements disrupt the magic and demand your attention. 


The viewfinder is ruthless. Details you don’t notice in real life, demand your attention when you look at a photograph. So sometimes you need to alter reality, in order to be true to the emotional reality of an experience or a place.

Perception
Reality

Altering the Image in Editing

In order to capture the emotional reality of the garden experience, I had to alter a number of things.

    1. Adjust the light
    2. Tame greens
    3. Remove unwanted elements
    4. Fill out gaps in trees
    5. Create focus with vignette


1 – Adjust the Light

As much as i love bright, sunny days in real life, I much prefer dark and moody photos.

2. Tame Greens

The same goes for greenery. Being surrounded by greenery is good for the soul (it’s even scientifically proven). I love greens when I’m outside, but when I look at the photos afterwards, the bright greens hurt my eyes. So I always adjust greens in editing. In Lightroom there are several possibilities when adjusting colour. Under the HSL/color panel you find hue, saturation and luminance. I often use a combination of all 3 when I edit greens.

3 – Remove Unwanted Elements

When creating an image I always choose what viewers should focus their attention on – both when I compose the image and when I edit it. If you can avoid attention stealing details by paying attention to your framing, by all means do so. But this is not always an option. If you end up with elements that disturb, remove them! Your image will be the better for it.

4 – Fill Out Gaps in Trees

In moody photography you use darkness to frame and direct attention towards the light in the image. This means that only elements you want to pay attention to should be lit. Insignificant details should not detract attention from what’s important in the image. In this image the light between the branches in the canopies in the upper left corner bothered me. I wanted the focus to be on the cabin and the wild sea of flowers in front of it. So in Lightroom I closed the gaps by using the spot removal tool.

5 – Create Focus with Vignette

When you want to direct attention in an image, a vignette is your best friend. It frames and guides the viewers attention. In Lightroom there are numerous possibilities to play around with, until you have created a vignette that suits the image.

To Capture or to Create? That is the Question

I used to think that capturing an image without changing it was somehow more pure. But I had to reconsider this view. Editing this photo made it clear to me. Purely capturing the garden meant loosing the feeling and atmosphere of it. And atmosphere and mood are more important to me than documenting. This is, after all, not a documentary, but an artwork. I guess that leaves me somewhere between capturing and creating – at enhancing.

So where do you stand? Are you a purist capturer, a ruthless creator or an enhancer? How far do you go in editing? and why?

I’d love to hear.  

Leave a comment!

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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.

FUN FACT
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.

Composition

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

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

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Chiaroscuro is a moody and dramatic lighting style. It has been a style darling through more than 400 years of art history. The Baroque painters loved it. 20th Century cinematographers loved it. And modern photographers still love it. Let’s take a look at what all the fuss is about.

What is Chiaroscuro?

The Meaning of Chiaroscuro?

‘Chiaroscuro’ is Italian and means light (chiaro) and dark (scuro). The French call it ‘clair-obscur’. However, outside France the style is known as ‘chiaroscuro’, so we’ll stick with that. Now we know what it means, but what does it look like?

What Does Chiaroscuro Look Like?

Even if you didn’t know the term ‘chiaroscuro’ beforehand, you can probably recognize it, when you see it. It is the style favoured by Old Masters such as e.g. Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Think ‘The Girl With the Pearl Earring’.

What characterizes chiaroscuro is a strong contrast between light and shadow. Select parts of the image are lit and the rest is encapsulated in darkness. In that way the light in co-operation with the framing darkness focuses the attention of the viewer. As a result your eyes are drawn to where the light falls.

The magic in chiaroscuro lies in the tension between light and darkness, in addition to the tension between light and what is lit.

It’s a duet of light and shadow. A tango between subject and light in portraits, between object and light in still lifes.

The Origins of Chiaroscuro

It all started in the Baroque period in Italy in the late 16th and the 17th Century. Up until then the term ‘chiaroscuro’ had been used about the technique in drawing and painting where highlights and shadows are applied to the image in order to suggest 3D volume. But light and shadow were in for a serious overhaul.

Chiaroscuro á la Caravaggio

The painter Caravaggio took the use of light and shadow a step further. He turned up the volume for both light and darkness. Turned it up loud. Very loud! The shadows were darkened to a degree where they were sometimes pitch black. And the light in his paintings was bright as a spotlight. Often his images contained a shaft of bright light lighting up a select part of an otherwise dark space. Light and shadow were no longer just used for their sculpting qualities. The extreme contrast between light and shadow had become a style. Chiaroscuro, as we know it, had been born.

The shadows were darkened to a degree where they were sometimes pitch black. And the light in Caravaggio’s paintings was bright as a spotlight.

High contrast chiaroscuro light.
‘Saint Jerome Writing’, Caravaggio (1605-06).

Caravaggio’s Legacy in Painting

Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow has been hugely influential. He has inspired many old master painters, particularly in The Netherlands and in Spain. A group of Dutch painters, now known as “The Utrecht Caravaggisti”, saw his works on a trip to Italy and were very inspired. Therefore they brought the inspiration from Caravaggio home to the Netherlands, where it spread. This inspiration is seen in the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as in the still lifes of The Dutch Golden Age. In Spain Caravaggio has inspired prominent painters such as Velazquez, de Zurbarán and Goya.

Chiaroscuro in Cinema

German Expressionism & Film Noir

The legacy from Caravaggio is not only seen in painting. He has inspired artist in all visual arts for centuries. 320 years after Caravaggio turned chiaroscuro into a style with his paintings, his influence became prominent in the relatively new art form, cinema. 2 cinematic styles, German Expressionism in the 1920s and Film Noir in the 1940s, are both in direct lineage from Caravaggio.

The Dark Side

The high contrast between shadow and light is particularly well-suited to black/white cinematography. Likewise is the dark and dramatic style also well-suited for exploring the dark side of human nature and society. This was often the case in the films of German Expressionism and Film Noir.

Shadows

The shadows function not only as a stylistic trait. They also add a natural sense of drama to the narrative. Because what lurks in the shadows? Only the lit parts are visible. Anything could hide in the shadows. Cast shadows are also very effectful. Often you will see a cast shadow from something or someone off-screen. This adds suspense, sometimes even horror. Silhouettes work in the same way. Take a look at the stills (image 1+2) from Nosferatu (1922) and Edward Scissorhand (1990), respectively. Both images exude horror and suspense and the parallel and kinship between the two films is obvious. Tim Burton is clearly inspired by ‘Nosferatu’ and references it in this shot.

Modern Uses of Chiarocsuro

As seen in the comparison between Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and Tim Burton’s ‘Edward Scissorhand’ (1990), the use of chiaroscuro in modern times has in no way died out. Many film directors and cinematographers have a soft spot for chiaroscuro. Therefore still to this day, chiaroscuro remains a popular and effectful lighting technique, both in b/w and in colour.

When chiaroscuro is used today it is sometimes used to reference art history (as seen in Edwards Scissorhand). Other times it is used simply to add atmosphere, drama and an artistic quality to a film. Either way, chiaroscuro is always effectful.

Chiaroscuro in Photography

Painting with Light

Photography in its essence is painting with light. Where the painter uses paint to create images with, the photographer uses light. The painter uses different colours and shades to create the illusion of light and shadow in the painting. The photographer, as well as the cinematographer, only use light.

Low Key vs. High Key Lighting

In photography as well as in cinematography there are two main styles of lighting, low key lighting and high key lighting. Both can be achieved by using either natural light or artificial light.

High Key Lighting

Reduces shadows, so there is a low contrast between highlights and shadows.

multiple light sources
→ diffused light

» Bright and happy images


Low Key Lighting

Welcomes all types of shadows. There is a high contrast between highlights and shadows.

1 light source
→ directional light

» Dark and moody images

How Do You Create the Chiaroscuro Effect?

In order to achieve the chiaroscuro effect with high contrast between light and shadow in photography and cinematography, you have to use low key lighting.

Using a single light source give the directional light that is such an integral element of the style. Without that there would be no shadows. And without shadows, there would be no chiaroscuro.

Moreover, in addition to creating the chiaroscuro effect as you shoot your image, you can also enhance the chiaroscuro look when you edit your image.

Why I Love Chiaroscuro

Maybe it’s because I’m a moody soul. Maybe it’s because I’m a drama queen. Who knows?

What I do know is, that the moody atmosphere in chiaroscuro get’s me every time. It’s powerful. It packs a punch. And I’m a sucker for it!

High key lighting can be beautiful, but it doesn’t give me the emotional response that I get from low key chiaroscuro lighting.That’s why I keep returning to the Dutch Golden Age painters for inspiration – both for portraits and for still lifes.

See my chiaroscuro still lifes
See my Chiaroscuro portraits
See a collection of chiaroscuro images

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

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A styled product photo is in its essence a still life image. So when it comes to product photography of vases and flowers, where better to seek inspiration than the floral still lifes of the Dutch Golden Age?

Flower Masters

The Old Masters of the Dutch Golden Age could paint flowers like there was no tomorrow. Flowers so lush you’d want to sink your teeth in them. There was no doubt who the star in the painting was, the flowers.

There were also other elements: a vase, a corner of a table and the occasional butterfly or other small animal.

Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684) was a master at painting floral still lifes and vanitas. The painting, ‘Stilleven met bloemen in een glazen vaas’ (‘Still Life With Flowers in a Glass Vase’), is characteristic of the genre and the period.

At the corner of a table is a vase filled with flowers. They are set off against a dark background and the flowers catch the light beautifully. The flowers spill out over the edges of the vase, filling the frame, really claiming the stage.

They behave like a diva, and the other elements in the painting are reduced to supporting cast, also the vase. And that’s all very well, because here the flowers are the star.

Product Photography of Vases Inspired by Floral Still Life Paintings

When you draw inspiration from Dutch floral still lifes for a product photo you want the wow-effect from the paintings. It’s tempting to show off just how gorgeous a flower arrangements this vase can accommodate.

But beware to make the flower arrangement in the product photo as show-stoppingly beautiful as in the paintings. You don’t want the flowers to steal the show. The vase should be the diva!

Beware to make the flower arrangement in the product photo as show-stoppingly beautiful as in the paintings. You don’t want the flowers to steal the show. The vase should be the diva!

How I Do Product Photography of Vases

When I do product photography of vases, I prefer to use only a few flowers, or even a single flower or branch. This is enough to emphasize that the object is a vase and to add beauty and atmosphere to the photo. But more importantly, it doesn’t steal the show from the vase. It lets the vase be the diva.

If I’m doing a whole series of images, not just one to show off one product, an option could be to also make an image with an elaborate flower arrangement with direct inspiration from the Dutch paintings. After all, vases are mainly bought by flower lovers. Such an image would work well as a lifestyle image on a product page in a web shop, or in a catalogue.

I’m ready to add a touch of Dutch Golden Age glamour and turn your vases into divas.

Turn my vases into divas

Now
See more floral still lifes from patinatur studio
See more dutch golden age floral still lifes

If you get 1 wish for the new year, 1 resolution to improve your life as a photographer – choose to learn to master the manual mode. Mastering the manual mode will give you the keys to the photographic kingdom. It will make you king or queen and turn your camera into your humble servant.

 

Overwhelming Possibilities

Many amateur photographers avoid the manual mode. I know I did for many years. It’s really overwhelming. A DSLR camera has endless possibilities. But this also makes it quite intimidating to try your hand at manual mode as an amateur.

Let’s get one thing straight. When I say amateur, I don’t mean unaccomplished, untalented or any other negative “un”-word. I mean someone who loves photographing. Someone who photographs, simply because they can’t not photograph.

Unexplored Territory – Just Waiting to be Explored

As an amateur photographer, you tend to focus on select types of photography and select techniques. In your chosen fields you can become really good. Even match professionals. But there are other areas of photography that you don’t explore. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. Unexplored territory just waiting be explored. So many new techniques to explore, that will enable you to take many more types of photographs. If you learn new techniques, you drastically improve and increase your photographic range.

Capture Your Creative Vision

The biggest difference you can make for yourself as a photographer is to learn to master manual mode on your camera. When you master manual mode, your camera becomes a tool that can capture your creative vision. And it’s a lot more fun to choose how you want an image, than it is to just click in automatic mode and see what your camera chooses for you.

Once you’ve felt the thrill of making a creative choice, setting the camera to do as you please and seeing your vision carried out, there’s no going back. Who wants to be a slave, when you can be king or queen?

So, what do you say? Let’s make 2021 the year when you crack the code to the manual mode and gain the keys to the photographic kingdom

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