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19 February 2013 @ 07:08 pm
Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis  
As I wandered through the Girl with the Pearl Earring show at the De Young Museum, I was looking forward to seeing two key paintings: the famous Vermeer image for which the exhibition is named, and a still life Vase of Flowers painted by one of the few Dutch Baroque women artists.

First, the Girl.  It's been called Vermeer's masterwork and the Mona Lisa of the North.  In person, it is gorgeous.  The painting is quite small, and for protection it was kept encased in glass, which only served to emphasize the diminutive dimensions.  But that painting is stunning.  The brushstrokes are so smooth, even though some are visible.  The face simply glows, as if a light shines through the canvas, and the highlights are placed so perfectly on the pearl, her eyes, her lips.  She doesn't look real - she's far too luminous for that - but she looks magical.



Since the painting is so well known, I used this image that my uncle Tom Jung took for The Daily Journal.
It gives you an idea of how the painting is displayed, and its relative size.
But the painting that I wanted to spend some time talking about - largely because I have to write a paper for my oil painting class, and thus I need to think about it anyway - is Vase of Flowers by Rachel Ruysch.


ruysch
Vase of Flowers


Rachel Ruysch was a fascinating woman who specialized in painting crystal vases and large bouquets of flowers. Her father was a scientist, and he helped foster the careful observation of nature that characterizes Ruysch's work from an early age. At 15, Ruysch was apprenticed to Willem van Aelst, a well-known flower painter. That training, when combined with Ruysch's great attention to detail and interest in the natural world, allowed the artist to establish herself as a still life painter. At a time when few women painted, and those that did often had to put aside their brushes upon marriage, Ruysch's decades-long career was unusual. But her longevity as an artist extended even beyond the grave, for Rachel Ruysch has remained consistently well-regarded in the past several centuries.

Vase of Flowers, at first glance, appears to be a collection of flowers gathered together. About a dozen different flowers, including tulips, irises and morning glories, are gathered together in a vase. It's very colorful, with blooms of pink, blue, red, white, yellow and purple. The vase sits on a table, and it appears to be in the shadow of some sort of arch, but background details are hidden in the darkened background. Sure, it's pretty and decorative, but is that it? Not at all. The longer one stares at the painting, the more strange and disturbing it becomes. The flowers aren't freshly cut blooms at the peak of their beauty. Most of them are wilting. A prominent red and white tulip appears to be on the verge of losing a petal. The flowers are also infested with bugs; several insects including a grasshopper, a dragonfly and a moth buzz around the flowers. Ruysch certainly was talented enough that she could have painted the flowers in a fresher state. In many paintings of this type, flowers from different seasons were painted together, often indicating that the artist based his or her flowers on earlier studies and sketches. (I'm not familiar enough with plants to confirm whether this is the case with this specific image.) So why would she choose to paint wilting flowers? The answer probably lies in the subcategory of the vanitas painting, which was popular during Ruysch's career. A vanitas uses the subject of the painting – in this case, a vase of flowers – to examine the transience and futility of life. Thus, the wilting flowers from many seasons suggests the passage of time, while the insects hint at decomposition and the grave, and the ultimate fate of both the bouquet and the viewer looking at it.

Ruysch's technique is masterful. Her flowers are bright against a darkened background, and the light is carefully managed. There are no dark shadows obscuring the plants, but as the flowers move farther away from the viewer, they recede into the background. The whites and pinks of the foreground are muted by greys into softer, duskier petals. Although the painting is very carefully staged, it looks as though Ruysch simply gathered and arranged the bouquet rather impulsively; a broken stem at the center of the painting enhances the impression that the arrangement was rushed. But the petals and the long stems provide a rhythm that guides the viewer's eye from one blossom to the next, eventually moving through the entire painting. It doesn't feel rushed or forced, so even though the eye is always moving the overall impression is of a restful image.

The painting is also impressive for Ruysch's amazing ability to render texture. Her flowers look real and solid. The brushstrokes are very smooth and soft, which creates a convincing silkiness to the petals. The leaves look rougher, since their veins bulge and they have visible ridges on the surface, and the contrast between these and the softer flowers is very pleasing and convincing to the eye. It is a painting that could only be accomplished with oil paints – tempera, which predated oils, could not be shaded in such fine gradations, and even if acrylics had been around during Ruysch's lifetime they could allow such a careful manipulation of color and light.

I was truly impressed by how interesting Ruysch could make a subject as humble as a bunch of flowers. Her skill as a draftsman was clearly shown in the expert appearance of each flower; I'm sure a botanist could readily identify every plant in the painting. Her precision and care as an oil painter brought her drawings to life in vivid color – the painting looks so convincing that one could almost believe it is a photograph, if not real. It's a real masterwork of a great artist, and Ruysch's achievements are all the more impressive when one considers that she maintained her career for over fifty years while married and raising a large family. I am in awe that she was able to be such a productive painter, and that her work was consistently executed with such skill.